The Reader by Stephen Daldry

“The notion of secrecy is central to western literature. You may say, the whole idea of character is defined by people holding specific information which for various reasons, sometimes perverse, sometimes noble, they are determined not to disclose.”

The film covers snippets from the life of Michael Berg from 1958 to 1995. The film lets the viewers travel in the memories of Michael, revealing his relationship with Hanna. The film takes place in Germany.

*Spoilers*

It starts off with an unexpected and passionate affair between Hanna (Kate Winslet) and Michael (David Kross). Hanna, one day rescues Michael who falls ill on his way back from school. Michael is 15 and Hanna is twice his age.  And this relationship, is no where near the concept of love, as we know it. Michael is with Hanna because he is discovering his own sexuality. On the other hand, for Hanna, Michael is a way of “reading” books. After some time, their relationship becomes “Reading first, sex later.” Both of them indulge into each other for fulfilling their own tiny desires. And although the society would not understand nor accept such relationship, it happens. After a few weeks, Hanna disappears, leaving no message for Michael and thus ends their romantic encounter. A few years pass and Michael who turns into a young law student finds Hanna again at a trial for a hideous crime during the second world war.

Societies think they operate by something called morality, but they don’t.

Hanna, along with a few of her colleagues is accused of letting 300 Jewish women die in a burning church when they were SS guards on the death march following the 1944 evacuation of a concentration camp near Krakow. Hanna refuses to defend herself and believes that she was doing what was right at that time. On the contrary, her colleagues try to pass the blame entirely on Hanna, making her the leader and as a result, the murderer of those 300 women. Hanna denies writing a report on the church fire but then admits it rather than providing a handwriting sample. This is the secret that Hanna wishes to protect more than her life. That she cannot read or write.

Michael connects the dots and realises Hanna’s secret. He wishes to save Hanna by disclosing this information but struggles as it will result in revealing his own little secret affair with Hanna. Hanna receives a life sentence and so does Michael. Michael imprisons himself and deals with his life in the shackles of loneliness.

Michael never visits Hanna in prison, but he sends her recordings of the books he used to read to her. Using the tapes as a reference Hanna learns to read and write by learning one word at a time. Just when Hanna’s life sentence is about to get over, she commits suicide. She leaves a note behind for Michael and asks him to give a some money that she has left behind to Ilana (Lena Olin); the holocaust survivor whose testimony had been the key evidence in the trial. Ilana refuses to take the money but Michael and Ilana agree that the money should go to an organisation that combats adult illiteracy.

The film ends with Michael taking his daughter to Hanna’s grave and telling her his little secret affair.

Phew! I think I have almost described the entire movie over here. But I felt it was necessary to explain what I learnt from this film.

1. The structure:

The film flaunts multiple acts interwoven accurately with one another. There are three major segments in the film and each segment has a three act structure of its own. Segment one would be the affair. Segment two would be the trial. And segment three would be the imprisonment of our lead characters.

2. Non linear storytelling:

This is one of the best non linear stories I have watched recently. I am a person who prefers content over style. And most probably a non linear structure is a difficult for the audience to grasp and connect with. But the film connects similar incidences in the past and the present so well that the non linear structure helps the viewer. It also emphasizes the changes Germany has gone through over these years.

3. Symbolism and Metaphors:

Although the film is promoted as if there are some dark secrets in it, actually things were pretty clear after one point. Just the way the stuff happened in the Nazi era is clear to the world. The film, in my opinion is more about the guilt and the sins.

4. Confrontation:

The two lead characters confront their sins. They accept the mistakes they made whatever the magnitude may be. Hanna’s primary mistake or misfortune was that she was illiterate. And Michael’s mistake was that he was naive. Both of them take responsibility for what they did in the past and that releases them from their respective prisons. Just the way the Germans do not try to hide what happened in the concentration camps, they confront the facts; the characters make peace with their past.

Michael (Young): You will leave life even more beautiful than you entered it.

Michael (Old, asks Hanna): What have you learnt?

Hanna: I’ve learnt to read.

(Symbolism: War and Peace – Hanna stands on the novel before she hangs herself.)

5. Lapse of Time:

The movie should be known for its pace. It is simply astounding where the film takes you in mere 124 minutes. It starts off as a completely different film and it ends on a different note. Much like Life is Beautiful. Another take on a similar subject, from a very different point of view!

6. Perspective:

Who is the protagonist of the film? Who is the point of view character? I am confused about who the protagonist is. It is certain that Michael is the POV character. The film remains honest to his point of view. We are never burdened with what happens at the prison with Hanna.

7. The narrative:

As I said, the film has a very unique point of view. It is not a prison movie. We don’t see what happens to Hanna in the prison. We don’t know whether she gets used to her life over there or whether she goes through a lot of problems. The film majorly focuses on the reasons rather than the aftermath. I felt it is a very risky way of going about it, but it works over here!

Overall, I feel the movie extends beyond its characters and it speaks about the Human Nature. The movie is about how the rights and wrongs are defined by the system and with passing time, the system might change drastically.

Societies think they operate by something called morality, but they don’t. They operate by something called law. The question is never “Was it wrong”, but “Was it legal”. And not by our laws, no. By the laws at the time.

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