Review & plot summary: The Reader

The Reader is not a film about
redemption, nor forgiveness perhaps not even understanding. It is a film, I
think, about shame, regret, love and the times that love is not enough to stop
us from hurting those we love or enough to make us give the comfort the loved
one seeks. It is a sad film, an emotional film, the sort of film that makes us
wonder why and that is perhaps the best kind of film there is.

Michael, a young German, is only fifteen when, by chance, he meets a much
older woman, Hanna, who helps him when he is sick. Months later they meet
again and begin a passionate affair that lasts the whole summer. Hanna is not
always an easy woman to be with, but she loves to be read to and it becomes
clear that she loves Michael at least as much as he comes to love her though
she seems naturally suspicious and finds it hard to express her feelings. It’s
all the more puzzling then why she suddenly leaves town without a word on
Michael’s sixteenth birthday. Is it because he is sixteen, because he avoided
his own birthday party to be with her or because she was promoted from being a
ticket collector on a tram to office work. Whatever the reason she leaves
abruptly with no explanation.

Eight years later, in 1966, Michael is a law student and attends a Nazi war
crimes trial he is shocked when Hanna appears as one of the defendants accused
of being a guard at a concentration camp and of allowing over three hundred
women to die in a fire. There are five other defendants who deny the charges
against them, refuse to answer questions and point to Hanna as being the one
in charge. Hanna for her part appears to answer the questions of the judges
honestly and seems upset.

A lot of the above is apparent from the publicity for the film which makes
much of the big secret that Hanna is protecting. If I’m honest this is why I
came to see the film as I’m a sucker for mysteries - curiosity always gets the
better of me. However, it’s also apparent by this point that the secret is no
big secret at all and in fact the answer has been in front of us all along. To
be honest if I’d known the “secret” was so banal I wouldn’t have gone to see
the film and I would have been the poorer for it, since it is a film well
worth seeing - the performances are stunning and the characters have a real
emotional depth; they feel pain and you feel their pain with them.

Michael makes an attempt to see Hanna in prison but find himself unable to go
through with it and meet the woman he loved knowing what he now knows. Hanna
is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Years later, Michael has been married, had a daughter and divorced. He finds
his old school books at his parent’s house, records himself reading them and
and sends the tapes to Hanna. The tapes give Hanna new life and she begins to
write to Michael but he never replies or sends any letters of his own or any
personal message of any kind, just the tapes of him reading the books.

In 1986, Hanna has been in prison for twenty years and is on the point of
being released. The prison contacts Michael as the only person who has had any
contact with Hanna in all this time even though he has never visited her and
asks if he can help her on her release. Eventually, Michael manages to force
himself to visit Hanna but though she loves him still he can’t bring himself
to show her much warmth and though he’s arranged a place for her to live it’s
clear that he’s not offering her any place in his life. A week later Michael
comes to collect Hanna from prison, after decorating her new home, perhaps
regretting his previous coldness he brings her flowers only to find she has
committed suicide. She has left a note instructing the warden to tell Michael
that she said “hello” and to give her remaining money to Michael for him to
give to a woman who survived the fire.

Michael tracks the woman down to give her the money and though the woman is
not able to offer any forgiveness for Hanna Michael does manage to find a kind
of release.

Finally, in 1995, he takes his daughter to Hanna’s grave and starts to tell
her what he has told no one else about a summer when he was fifteen years-old,
met a woman and fell in love for the first and possibly the only time in his

One thing I liked about The Reader was that at no time did it attempt to
excuse Hanna’s actions, claim she was not a bad person really or say that she
was not aware of what she had done. In fact apart from the excerpts from the
war crimes trial we are not told very much at all. It does seem that Hanna
regrets her actions but most of all we are shown the effect on our lives that
a simple choice can make: during the trial it was shown that just before she
joined the SS Hanna was offered a job at Siemens but chose the SS because it
was “a job” and from that one choice everything else flows. It’s never spelled
out exactly why Hanna made that choice it seems clear, once we know her
secret, that working for Siemens would have exposed it and made her shame

You want to know the secret? If you haven’t worked it out you’ll just have to
go and see the film won’t you!

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