Shame is powerful — so powerful it can cause people to do things far more harmful than the consequences of revelation. Shame and guilt lie at the heart of “The Reader.”
This movie begins like a May-to-December romance in post-World War II Germany. Michael Berg (David Kross) falls into an affair with Hanna (Kate Winslet). She is in her 30s, and he is but a boy of 15. Theirs is a physical relationship, but with an interesting dimension to it: Hanna desires for Michael to read to her.
He reads the classics to her, everything from “The Odyssey” to “Huckleberry Finn.” Sex follows the reading. Hanna shares her body, but not herself, with Michael, for he is just a boy splashing in a pool he should have avoided. Only after the third visit does he ask her name.
We watch this summer of sensuality play out and begin to see the effect it is having on this boy. But a day comes when Hanna moves out of her apartment, leaving Michael to sort out what happened.
Flash forward. Michael is now a law student and part of a seminar on the Holocaust, where he is privy to a trial of SS guards who allowed a group of prisoners to die in a bombed-out church. To his shock, Michael recognizes Hanna as one of the guards on trial.
As the trial goes on, Michael twists and turns. He stares at Hanna, contemplating shame. Michael’s limited knowledge of Hanna holds a secret that could give her an advantage and a lighter sentence. His struggle in deciding what to do shows the mark of the affair and his shame. He will live with his decision forever.
“The Reader” shows the power of choice. Hanna is lonely, hiding out from her past. Into her life comes a teenager who offers respite. But her choice to introduce this one to the theater of sex leaves an indelible mark. The sex here is not beautiful; it’s merely an act between two people. But that joining brings the shame of Hanna’s past upon Michael.
That is what Paul said, by implication, in I Corinthians, when he wrote that when one joins with another in the act of sex, the “two become one flesh.” The one flesh that Michael and Hanna become is a flesh filled with the shame of acts committed — not merely in copulation, but in the past they carry into the future. I see in this movie a parable on the power of a wrong relationship and how crossing certain lines brings bitter fruit.
Kate Winslett, nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, gives a remarkable performance. She is restrained emotionally in moments seemingly requiring emotion, but passionate in passionless moments. Her Hanna cries freely when she hears a children’s choir sing or when she hears Michael read. During the trial, she is almost defiant in her response to the judge’s questions. It’s a fine performance from one of our finest actors.
I dislike the narrative method, however — the switching back and forth in time, which makes it hard to follow the narrative path. That creative choice muddles the power of the story. We see Ralph Fiennes, the adult Michael, at the beginning, and we are taken into the past. After a time, we are taken back into the present, and then leap backward. This gives the viewer narrative whiplash.
That said, it is a powerful movie. And it is a statement on our need for redemption. Are there affairs between older and younger? Of course, and far worse. But what can be salvaged? Only through redemption and reconciliation can our future offer hope and health. “The Reader” shows how that lack of redemption destroys and stunts.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.
Reviewer’s note: A warning to those who are offended by sexuality in the movies.
Director: Stephen Daldry Writer: David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink Cast: Michael (teen): David Kross; Hanna: Kate Winslet; Michael (adult) Ralph Fiennes.