The adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader (Der Vorleser) by David Hare and Stephen Daldry has become one of the most controversial movies of the previous decade. It is a story about difficult choices and regrets that influence the entire life of a person. The main characters Hanna and Michael have a short love story in the beginning of the movie, while the rest of the movie is telling about the consequences that their affair had on young Michael’s life. Michael accidently finds out that Hanna was a Nazi guard during the Word War II. She was responsible for the death of 300 people, and there is nothing that can deny her guilt. However, Michael knows a secret about Hanna which can definitely mitigate her sentence. This paper is going to discuss the moral implications of the main characters of the story, analyzing their actions in a critical way.
Michael meets Hanna in 1958 for the first time. He is a 15-year-old boy who feels sexual attraction to a woman in her 30’s. From the very beginning, their relationship is not healthy. Michael cannot tell the truth to anyone about having a love affair with an older woman. His classmates do not understand why he has become so distant, while his parents see that he is lying to them about something. Nevertheless, Michael keeps seeing Hanna. He is reading to her aloud before they make love. It becomes their tradition, as Michael seems to have a talent for reading.
The Reader movie keeps the audience intrigued until the very end, as it is not a simple narrative, but a flashback and flash forward type of story. The older Michael’s memories keep emerging in the course of the movie, and it is easy to see how deeply damaged he has become after meeting Hanna. Meeting Hanna and then discovering about her Nazi past leaves a significant imprint on Michael’s life. During his student years in law school, he attends a trial of several defendants, who are accused of working for SS and committing terrible atrocities. One of the women at the trial turns out to be Hanna Schmitz, the former lover of Michael. This is the moment when young Michael’s image of his perfect first love turn into a lie.
The moral dilemma of young Michael is whether or not he should testify in favor of Hanna to the court. He knows her secret, and he knows how much she is afraid to reveal it. Hanna Schmitz is illiterate. She cannot read and write. That is why she enjoyed when Michael was reading for her. However, Hanna’s former colleagues in concentration camp set her up, telling the judge she was the one who falsified the report. There was a big fire in the church during Hanna’s work in SS. There were about 300 Jewish women and children closed in that church, which Hanna and other guards refused to open during the fire. 300 people died because of her choice, and then, all the guards wrote a fake report about not noticing the fire until they saw the burnt church. All of her colleagues, also accused by the court, put the blame on Hanna, as if she was the one to write the report. And only Michael knew that Hanna could not have written it, as she was illiterate. Nevertheless, she was given a life sentence for taking leadership on that occasion, while her colleagues were given much shorter sentences.
It is also a story about shame. Not only Hanna was ashamed of being illiterate and trying to hide it during her entire life, but also Michael was ashamed to admit having an affair with such a woman. If he had gone to testify to the court and try to save Hanna from the life sentence, she would still have been sentenced for her crimes, even though for a shorter time. Michael was faced with a moral dilemma and chose to stay silent and do not provide the court with essential information that would turn the whole case upside down.
Hanna admits guilt for murdering 300 Jews and falsifying the report. She believes it is better than to admit being illiterate. This situation makes the audience realize that the movie is not as straightforward as it may seem. There is a deeper meaning in it, regarding the older and younger German generations. In the late 1950’s - early 1960’s, young people like Michael had tremendous difficulties understanding their parents in terms of taking part in Holocaust and the World War II. Hanna, in this context, appears a representative of an older generation who either took part in the war, or watched its atrocities.
Nowadays, it is hard to imagine how younger people in post Nazi Germany felt about their fathers’ actions. The Reader gives a historical insight and educates today’s generation in terms of morality and righteousness. Hanna Schmitz was so ashamed of her illiteracy that in her opinion, it was better to confess of mass murder of Jews. When the judge offers her to give a sample of her handwriting to compare it with the report, she trembles and, after a brief moment, confesses the crime instead of telling everybody she is unable to write.
Despite the fact that Hanna is illiterate, for some reason, she never tries to change the situation. During her whole life, she is running away from places, making sure nobody knows her secret. However, she never tries to learn how to read and write, which is really striking and surprising. She never thinks about learning grammar and letters until she gets into prison.
It was a very romantic moment to watch Michael create the audiotapes for Hanna. He could not find a place in his heart to forgive Hanna completely, but even after so many years, he still wanted to be a part of her life. Sending her the audiotapes gave Hanna hope and reminded her of their happy days together. Reading her favorite books to her was his way of being her friend, even after many years of separation. That is the moment when Hanna decides to learn how to write. Listening to Michael reading The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov, she is looking into the book and tries to identify the letters with the help of sounds. Kate Winslet in the role of old Hanna is absolutely genius and breathtaking.
Only having grown old and having learned how to write, Hanna realizes the scale of all the terrible things she had done in SS. During the time of her trial, she honestly believed she had done nothing wrong. She only did her job and took the orders. She asks the judge “What would you have done?” (The Reader).
The movie keeps flashing backward and forward between the periods of Michael’s life. However, there are no flashbacks to the times when Hanna worked in Auschwitz. Therefore, no one can possibly estimate and judge her moral principles during that time. The story is concentrated more on the impact that Hanna had on Michael’s life. His life had been ruined because of her, and he had never been able to recover. He does get married, but with time he divorces his wife. His only close person is his daughter, who also does not want to stay around him for a long time, as she feels his coldness and distance.
The climax of the story comes with the moment when Michael enters Hanna’s cell after her suicide. She hangs herself and leaves a note in which she asks Michael to visit the only survived person in the church fire and give her all the money she has collected in a tin can. This is the moment when Michael starts crying.
There was only one day left before Hanna’s release, but she did not want to live a free life anymore. Maybe the reason for her suicide was because she had seen Michael’s rejection. When he comes to visit her a week before, she tries to reach out to him. However, Michael does not want to touch her or hug her. Even though he has taken care of her future work and a rental apartment, he does not want her to be in his life. He has not forgiven her.
The resolution of the main conflict in this story is seen when Michael tells the truth to a woman, the only survivor of the church fire. Michael tries to explain her that Hanna was illiterate and could not be fully responsible for her violent actions. Only then he understands that Hanna’s actions cannot be redeemed or forgiven. Even though that woman does not take Hanna’s money, she takes a small tin can, as a sentimental object, reminding her of her childhood.
One can never actually see the real personality of Hanna. The audience never sees the events from her perspective, and the movie never explains what Hanna truly feels. Her personality can be evaluated only through Michael’s perception and through the eyes of the judge in the court. In one of the last scenes she even denies that her own opinion has any importance. “It doesn’t matter what I feel; it doesn’t matter what I think. The dead are still dead” (The Reader).
Analyzing some of the scenes, it becomes clear that Hanna’s Nazi past had a huge imprint on her behavior. In the scene when Hanna is washing young Michael, her controlling and dominant side can be seen more clearly. At that moment, she behaves like an SS guard, not like a loving woman. Hanna is brutal and harsh, and she always decides for both of them. And that is what Michael does not like about her. However, he still feels the peculiar energy in her that is luring him into her embrace.
In the scene when Hanna and Michael go on the bicycle ride, they stop by a church. That must be the moment when Hanna recalls what she has done to the innocent people in the church years ago. She listens to the children singing in choir and cries. At that moment, Michael does not understand Hanna’s behavior. However, it is still abnormal that he never asks Hanna about her past. He is used to be under her control.
For the 15-year-old Michael, the novelty of intimate relationship is exciting and breathtaking. It raises his self-esteem and makes him a confident young man. Even though he cannot tell his friends about his love affair, he starts behaving differently and everybody sees that. Michael turns into a grown young man. And he starts realizing that other girls in the class pay attention to him. He is handsome and fun, and knows how to behave with women. However, he remains loyal to his first love.
It is hard to say whether it was love between Hanna and Michael. Michael, as a young maximalist, probably believed it was the real love that would last forever, though Hanna had a completely different plan.
For Hanna, this relationship was a way to escape her horrible past. This was a relationship with no future, and Hanna knew that. She knew that she would never have the courage to meet Michael’s friends or parents, as no one would understand such an unhealthy age difference. When she gets a promotion, she is afraid that her illiteracy will become apparent. That is why she suddenly lives the town, without saying anything to Michael. That is when Michael feels heartbroken for the first time. The second time is when he sees Hanna 8 years later in the court, being accused of a mass murder of Jews. When he finds out that Hanna was a Nazi guard, picking women every month to send to death, his heart is broken forever.
This story is special because it puts a perpetrator in the centre of the events, not a victim. The average Holocaust movie would tell about the Jews and the atrocities done to them by German soldiers. However, in this story, the author is trying to make the audience feel pity for the antagonist. That is the reason why the movie received so many negative comments and reviews. The reality of this story is biased, as the author tries to present Holocaust events from a difference perspective. Not all the people are ready to accept the new perception of the tragedy. And the majority is not ready to sympathize with the main character.
Nevertheless, the movie does not justify Hanna’s actions. Even though she is illiterate, it does not influence her moral values and choices she makes. One does need to know how to read in order to murder innocent people. One does not need to be literate to understand that committing a murder is wrong. However, Hanna’s sincere ignorance of the faultiness of her actions makes it clear that people of her generation did not consider cruelty wrong. It was a shame not to know how to write, but it was normal to commit war crimes.
A famous Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard once said “If ever a film is to be made about Auschwitz, it will have to be from the point of view of the guards” (Hare). And he was right, because the fictional character Hanna represents the real way of thinking of the SS guards. Hanna sincerely believes that she had to choose 10 women each month to send them to gas chambers because there was not enough place for everyone. The new people were coming, and the old ones had to go. She does not see anything wrong in her deeds, and sincerely admits it to the judge. That was the way all the SS guards in Auschwitz thought.
The main reason why The Reader, both the book and the movie, acquired tremendous success all over the world is its eye opening theme. After a long time of silence, the sufferings of Jews in concentration camps in 1930’s and 1940’s have become reachable for the public eye. Right after the war, after 20 years of peaceful life, the surviving victims refused to talk about the tortures and horrible things done to them by German soldiers. Only in the middle of 1960’s, the victims started to talk, and their stories lead to trials of former Nazis. Only in 1995, Bernhard Schlink finally gathers the courage to write about Holocaust and its legacy.
The book, as much as the movie, is not about the war and Holocaust, but about the children of a great crime committed by their fathers. The new generation born after the war was not responsible for their fathers’ mistakes. However, they felt that they ought to be ashamed of their nation and their history.
Holocaust was real, and this movie is not trying to justify it or ask for redemption in the eyes of the survived victims. Hanna and her real analogs have no right for redemption. And the movie keeps proving it, placing Michael on the crossway. His pain for Hanna’s actions is so severe that during his entire life he cannot find a place in his heart to forgive her. It is not his place to forgive.
Getting acquainted with classic literature and listening to Michael’s reading was the way Hanna became more educated. Even when she worked as a Nazi guard, she picked favorite prisoners, whom she asked to read for her. It means that she aspired for knowledge and understanding of life. Michael was born to a middle-class family. He lived in a big house and did well at school. When Michael was talking to Hanna in Greek and Latin, she was amazed of how many things she does not know.
Even though Hanna’s illiteracy is not obvious from the beginning, it does not completely justify her horrible actions. When she was 20, she thought it would be the best decision to join the SS, as they guaranteed regular payments. If she had been literate at that time, she would probably have known from some books or magazines that SS were responsible for Holocaust and many more crimes. This is what could have changed her mind about joining them.
At the end of her life, Hanna eventually learns how to read and write. Along with sending Michael short letters informing him about her writing skills, she starts reading the books about Holocaust and the World War II, written by its witnesses and victims. The only survivor from the burning church wrote a book about Holocaust and the horrible things that Germans did to Jews. That book was the main reason Hanna was sentenced to life imprisonment, as the war victims did not reveal their sufferings before 1960’s. But at that time, she could not read, and that is why did not know what the book was about.
Her recently acquired literacy has most probably led to her suicide. Understanding what she really took part in, even if not directly, was a shock to Hanna. In addition, Michael’s rejection when he came to see her influenced her further actions.
The moral ambiguity of this story is impressive and repellant at the same time. The Reader leaves many questions unanswered. And there are many paths the characters could have taken instead of making their original choices. When young Michael starts reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, Hanna says, “It’s disgusting” (The Reader). But later, she realizes that she was the one sitting naked in a bathtub with an underage boy. This makes her think that maybe she is not that different from the character is that book. Maybe the question of morality is blurring, as seducing a young boy was not the most horrible thing she’s done in her life.
When the older Michael comes to New York to visit the woman, who was a victim of Holocaust in her childhood, she asks him a question, “Did she acknowledge the effect she’d had on your life? [meaning Hanna Schmitz] – She had done much worse to other people” (The Reader).
Hanna’s influence on Michael’s life was almost unnoticeable compared to her deeds in Auschwitz. Nonetheless, Michael did not succeed in his married life. He had a daughter, but he could not sustain a happy marriage with another woman. It is worth noting that his wife was never mentioned in the movie, and one cannot see who she was. However, his reunion with his daughter is the most precious moment, and the most important revelation for Michael. At the end of the movie, he finally comes to reconciliation and decides to tell his story.
Even though the story does not put the main emphasis on pedophilia, this topic obviously caused a lot of criticism in regard to the movie. Despite the fact that Hanna is 20 years older than Michael, their relationship seems quite natural and consent. Besides, it must be pointed out that if it was not for Michael’s young age, the whole story would not even be possible. In fact, their age difference is what led to this conflict itself. Hanna would still get a life sentence if she had not met Michael. But this is not the story about a criminal being punished and sent to prison. It is the story about love and compassion, and about the right and wrong choices.
In my opinion, movies about Holocaust will always cause a lot of criticism, no matter how precisely they describe the events. The Reader merely tells a story of fictional characters, putting them in the time frames of the post-WWII period. Some of the critics say that filming another movie about Holocaust was the guarantee to be nominated for multiple awards, including the Academy Awards, which Kate Winslet eventually won for her genius performance.
It is hard to find a perfect movie that everybody would like. The Reader is also not that type of movie. However, I am sure that even those people who found some repellant content in its plot still enjoyed the brilliant acting of the main actors, wonderful soundtracks and picturesque scenes of the old times Germany. This movie has a lot to offer, even though it leaves a bitter after-taste. The Reader leaves the audience with mingled feelings, and some people keep rethinking this story for a long time after the movie ends.
I believe this is a brilliant result of professional work of directors, screenplay writers and actors. This story is breathtaking and surprising due to its range of emotions and feelings. People who hate this movie seem to have no understanding of cinematography and its purpose. This story is absolutely mould-breaking and exciting. Hanna Schmitz is a perfect analogy of an SS guard. She has a different way of thinking, different perception of life and different moral values than the younger generation. It is not the conflict of good and bad morals, but a conflict of different mentalities and life views. Adding a love story into this conflict makes the movie more attractive to a bigger audience. Michael’s reunion with his daughter in the end was a symbolic resolution of his inner struggles. Creating a happy ending for one of the characters is a way to emphasize that sometimes people become the victims of circumstances that change the entire course of their lives.