This film, released on 2008, was written by David Hare, based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink, and directed by Stephen Daldry. Ralph Fiennes plays Michael Berg, a lawyer in Germany in 1995, when this film is originally set. The rest of the film is primarily told in flashbacks, as Michael reflects on his involvement with a woman named Hannah (played by Kate Winslet), which began when he was just 15 years old. Michael had come down with a severe illness one day, while out on the street, and collapsed. Hannah, who is already an adult, happened to come across him, and helped him get home. When Michael got better, he tracked down Hannah so he could give her some flowers, as a way of thanking her, and Michael is immediately attracted to her. The 2nd time they meet, Hannah takes notice of Michael’s attraction, and rather suddenly seduces him. Over the next several weeks, the two lovers meet in secret at Hannah’s apartment, after she’s gotten home from work and he’s got out of school, to have sex. Hannah soon makes what seems like an odd request to Michael, she wants him to read to her some of the books that he’s studying in school. She says she enjoys hearing his voice, and the way he reads. And so that is how their affair progresses, they’d have sex, and then lie in bed (or in the bathtub) while Michael reads aloud to Hannah.
What I find most interesting about how this relationship is portrayed is that there’s almost an abusive element to it, on the part of Hannah. Michael (brilliantly portrayed as a teenager by David Cross), is a naïve wide-eyed innocent, who clearly develops deep feelings for Hannah. While Hannah is shown at times to be dismissive of Michael and mocks his youth. That, mixed with the tenderness of their love scenes, creates a very strange dynamic between these two.
Then Hannah abruptly moves away, after receiving a job promotion, without even telling Michael or saying goodbye. Michael is, of course, devastated. Then the film switches to 6 years later, where Michael is in law school. His professor takes him and some of his fellow students to observe a trial where three women are charged with war crimes for being Nazi prison guards at a women’s concentration camp, where they were responsible for allowing some of the prisoners to die in a fire. Michael is shocked to discover that Hannah was one of the guards, although he attempts to hide the fact that he knows her from his professor and fellow students, and the other two women put the blame for the fire entirely on her. While studying the evidence and facts of the trial, Michael discovers Hannah’s secret, which is that she is illiterate. That’s why she had Michael read books to her, because she couldn’t read them herself. This info could actually help her during the trial, but she refuses to admit it, because she’s too embarrassed, and is therefor sentenced to life in prison.
Over the years, Michael sends tape recording that he makes of himself reading various books to Hannah in prison, but he never goes to visit her in person. Eventually, Hannah uses Michael’s tapes to teach herself how to read. And then 22 years later she is due to be paroled. Michael finally goes to see her in prison, but their meeting is strained, as Michael can’t quite reconcile the horrible actions she committed during the war with the woman her remembers from his youth. He does end up agreeing to help her find a job and a place to stay when she gets out of jail, but then when he goes to pick her up on the day of her release, he discovers that she committed suicide the day before. We then switch back to the modern day (1995) where Michael is telling this story to his young daughter.
I enjoyed this film both for the complexity of the relationship between Hannah and Michael, as well as for scenes between Michael and the other law students during the trial. It’s made clear that these kids are the first generation in Germany to come after WWII, and have grown up in the shadow of the atrocities that were committed by the generation that preceded them, and have struggled to come to terms with that. I also must say that while Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes were rightly praised by the critics for their performances, I feel that David Cross has been greatly overlooked. His portrayal as young Michael, going from age 15-22 is spot-on, and I think he’s the real star of the film.
And least I forget another great feature of this movie, and the reason why I own it on DVD: Kate Winslet gets naked. Completely naked. A LOT.
TWO THUMBS UP!