What is morality? It cannot be a set of principles each individual establishes himself or herself because someone could convince their mind into believing it is permissible to sexually abuse a child when a person of reasonable thoughts would conclude otherwise. Maybe morality is the shame felt when you have done something unequivocally wrong in the eyes of God, and that burden can be solely lifted by seeking forgiveness for your trespasses. This inescapable feeling is perpetually, deeply felt by the characters in “The Reader.”
At one point, the Professor (Rohl Bruno Ganz) states accurately that societies are under the mistaken impression that they run on morality. He believes they are run by laws, which sounded reasonable at first but fails under further scrutiny. Since not everyone follows laws and yet not everyone is caught in these illegal acts, this argument becomes futile.
What does run societies? “The Reader” forced me to intensely evaluate my thoughts and feelings on this question and others that would have never crossed my mind. I believe societies are run by a group of individuals continuously striving to achieve the same goal. In a capitalistic society, such as ours, that sense of satisfaction is derived from wealth, not necessarily monetarily, but also through power, prestige or emotional means. In old monarchial societies, the objective was to serve the king and queen at all costs. In Nazi Germany, around which “The Reader” is set, the only goal was to stay alive and each individual would go to extensive lengths to ensure that happened.
The story involves a passionate love affair between 35-year-old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) and 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) that occurred in the summer of 1958, dramatically changing each of their lives. Why does Hanna make Michael read to her? Is it because she likes to immerse herself in a world where morality is made clear and the characters do not have difficult choices to make? One of the books he reads is “The Odyssey,” which reflects the journey both Michael and Hanna experience by allowing each other, through their actions, to ask forgiveness in the best way they know how, in an effort to achieve levity above the sins that had previously defined them.
When the affair concludes, Michael is so despondent that he baptizes himself in the lake prominent in the film, promising never to be vulnerable again by emotionally isolating himself from the rest of the world. Much of the remainder of the film is devoted to examining Michael’s journey from numbness aided by drinking and uninspired sexual encounters, shame, and loneliness back to pain, hope, and love.
Years later, Michael is a law student examining the intricacies of the trials of eight female Nazi guards and is horrified to learn that Hanna is one of the defendants. The guilt of these women is obvious, but eventually Michael knows a secret about Hanna that would dramatically reduce her sentence. It is obvious that Hanna would rather keep this secret and receive a much harsher penalty than reveal it and be subject to ridicule.
Does Michael have an obligation to reveal this information if Hannah does not want it to see the light of day? He chooses not to, which is something that will haunt him all the way through his adulthood, where he is played by Ralph Fiennes. His reasons for doing this are not made clear, which is proper, considering we can never fully understand the intentions of any other individual.
Does he feel that she deserves whatever punishment she receives? Does he believe Hanna would not want the court to know the information that could alleviate her sentence? It is probably a little bit of both, but I believe he is more ashamed of himself in falling in love with someone capable of such incomprehensible evil. If he can love someone who has committed such heinous acts, does that mean he is filled with evil in his heart. The film raises endless questions that are often unanswerable.
Each sex scene in the film is a cry for help, a prayer for forgiveness, a place to momentarily place their shame, the ultimate catharsis. The director, Steven Daldry, subtlely uses light and darkness to indicate the motives of the individuals in the scene. Hanna’s face is often in darkness, reflecting this as a place to put her shame, while Michael is in the light, illustrating a feeling of enlightenment or innocence in finding his sexuality. Later, when Michael has been overcome by shame, he is shown in the darkness while the woman is in the light.
All the performances are stunning in their authenticity. Kate Winslet makes the audience feel immense compassion for her character, even with her illegal and unethical actions. We do not feel sorry for the atrocities she committed but rather for her as a person because, after all, everyone in the Holocaust, including the murderers, victims, and survivors, was human. David Kross is a revelation, illustrating immense innocence as a young man unsure of his principles and only positive of his love for Hanna, and Ralph Fiennes is excellent as the older version of the tremendously damaged boy.
It is easy to sit here and state that you would have stood against Nazi Germany without any consequences. Would you really have done that if the penalty for this treasonous act was death? None of us can be sure of how we would have reacted. “The Reader” is a rare film that not only makes you reassess your thoughts on societal morality, but also on the principles you would concede if it would save your life with a poignant ending that perpetuates in the memory with its significance .