In some stories, there can be no catharsis, the German writer Bernhard Schlink has said of his novel, “The Reader.” For some crimes, there is no forgiveness.
“The Reader,” brought to the screen by Stephen Daldry with a script by David Hare, seconds that. In taking Schlink’s story of the ultimate “generation gap,” the misunderstanding between post-World War II Germans and the parents and others who allowed or participated in the most monstrous acts in history, they’ve reached for something almost unique to Holocaust stories: an understanding of the perpetrators, of degrees of guilt and the absolution that no person who lived through that era could possibly feel he or she deserves.
The Reader begins as a “Summer of ’42” romance, an inappropriate affair between a 15-year-old boy (David Kross) and a thirtysomething trolley conductor in 1958 Germany. Since that conductor, Hanna, is played by Kate Winslet, we instantly question why someone who looks like her is single, why this transgressive sex (explicitly shown) appeals to her.
The boy, Michael, falls for Hanna and finds a way into her heart. She loves hearing him read — “The Odyssey,” books of poetry, novels, school assignments. The affair is doomed, of course. But years later, just when the sophistication and sexual experience she gave him should be paying off, Michael loses even the sweet memories of that past. He is in law school. It’s 1966, his teacher (Bruno Ganz, perfect) takes his class to one of the last big war-crimes trials. And there is Hanna, in the dock.
The film shifts the timeline of the events in the novel, but that actually aids Schlink’s subtext — that generation gap in understanding. Michael was born in 1943, Hanna in 1922. What did she do during the war? What crime could she, his first love, have possibly committed? How will he react?
“The Reader” is framed within an extended flashback from 1995. The adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is remembering, for his adult daughter, the affair that so touched and scarred him for life, the events that picked up his story with Hanna in 1958, 1966, 1988 and 1995. Fiennes gives Michael an emotional emptiness that psychologists say is often a consequence of borderline abusive sexual relationships. That gives the film Schlink’s desired effect — a kind of frustration that comes from trying to grasp the unfathomable, and failing.
Then you see Winslet, conveying everything we need to know about this woman in her eyes, the set of her mouth. There’s confusion, grief, guilt and shame in that face. She betrays the way Hanna’s emotions might have been shut down to keep from going mad, and the return of those emotions. Winslet will absolutely break your heart.
It may not be an emotional or intellectually satisfying Holocaust tragedy. Daldry robs the story of a couple of its most telling blows. But “The Reader,” distant though it can be, touches and provokes a mulling over of the Holocaust like few films on the subject in recent memory.