I read The Reader in 1999; it was an Oprah book so it was everywhere that year. One could not appear in public with the book without being pelted with questions, “Isn’t it divine? Isn’t it amazing? A wonderful book…”
The book left me cold. I remember very little from it – only that Hannah was a Nazi prison guard and she had an affair with a young boy. Then she’s tried for war crimes and is found not guilty because she could not read. I think there was a piece of evidence, like an order she supposedly wrote, that proved conclusively she could not have done what they accused her of because she was illiterate.
I chose to see the movie version because Kate Winslet is in it. My instinct was correct. She is an amazing actress. Sometimes she appears to completely German, so of that era, that I blink my eyes and wonder if there is some sort of special effect, some trick of lighting or makeup to make her appear so vivid. There isn’t.
Her uncombed hair, rapidly tied back in a knot, her svelt body, the strange cant of her eyes and grim mouth are all effects, but the acting comes from inside her. She meets a young boy, Michael; she helps him home one afternoon. He returns to her home and she asks him to do some housework for her. He gets filthy so she tells him to take a bath. Such a strange juxtaposition of her strict, efficient, joyless exterior, and the obvious sensuality in her face. Before he gets into the bathtub, she stands behind him, not touching him, and kisses his shoulders. Her hand reaches around, gently taking his penis in her hand and she whispers, gravely, “This is why you came back.”
The boy is so very young. Maybe just fourteen or fifteen. The camera allows you to see his perfect contoured buttocks, his long legs, his narrow shoulders. The scene changes abruptly. Hannah is on top of him, her breasts exposed, her whole body rocking back and forth atop the boy. At no time while watching did it register that this was a moral trespass. Of course, you think, of course it happened this way.
The sex is filmed beautifully and honestly. The second time they are together, she drapes her leg over his shoulder and the winces; it is so honest that for a moment you feel like you’re watching something that should not be filmed at all. It is too private.
In another scene, she kisses his chest, lower, to the flat, perfect expanse of his belly. It is absolutely perfect. It is the kind of tenderness that makes you suffer in its absence.
After a fight, the boy comes into the bathroom where she is in the tub. Milky water does not obscure her breasts or the blurred triangle between her legs. This is what I mean by honesty. The camera shows you exactly what the boy sees. She is very angry, stiff with anger. “You do not mean enough to upset me!” she shouts. The boy says that he is sorry. He has never been with a woman before. He sits down on the edge of the tub. Her expression does not change, but you can see that she is changing. You see that she recognizes that he is very young and his youth affords him a measure of forgiveness.
“Do you love me?” he asks.
Her eyebrows betray a scrim of bewilderment when she realizes the answer. Very subtly, terrifyingly, she nods her head yes.
He reads to her. She lies in his arms and he reads her books. The love affair is beautiful but it is quickly overshadowed by the trial. The boy is watching but Hannah does not see him. He is older. Hannah is aged. She is accused of writing a report describing how, as a guard, she allowed a group of women to burn and die. The door was locked from the outside and she did not open the door. She is accused of writing the report. The other female guards testify that she wrote the report. The judge asks for a writing sample, and Hannah, overcome with shame, quickly changes her story and admits that she wrote the report.
The boy, a law student, knows this is not true. He goes to visit her in the prison where she is being kept but changes his mind. He returns to his college and makes love with another student.
The next day, Hannah is found guilty of murdering 300 people. The boy watches in silence. Hannah is sentenced to life in prison, and then she turns and looks at him squarely. He is weeping.
I think this is a flaw in the book. I don’t recall it very well, but I don’t believe it went into the significance of this. The movie makes it clear that he understood that she was guilty of those crimes. She slaughtered old women and babies. She sent them to their deaths. She was matter of fact about it, explaining at trial that they had to make room for the new Jewesses who arrived every day. “Where could we put them? What would you do?” Evil, horrible. And he loved her anyway. Michael is unique among movie characters because he is not so overcome with love that he will forgive genocide. He knows right from wrong. He loves her, and he allows her punishment to happen with no interference from him. It is painful for him. But that is what makes his silence so moving.
Many years pass. He sends Hannah some tapes in prison. He sends a tape of himself reading “The Odyssey” by Homer – the first book he read to her when they were first lovers.
One day in prison, when Hannah is very old, she goes to the prison library and checks out “The Lady With The Little Dog” by Checkov. Michael has sent her a tape of him reading this, and again it was a book he read to her as her lover. It is almost painfully poignant watching her learn to read as an old woman by listening to her lover’s voice, looking at the words on the page, watching it finally click in her mind.
Michael receives a letter. It is from Hannah. It says, in firm childish writing, “Thank you for the latest, kid. I really liked it.”
She writes new letters: “Please send me more romance.”
He does. He receives more letters:
“I think Schiller needs a woman.”
“Are you getting my letters?
He does not. Nor does he visit. He simply sends the tapes.
After being in prison for twenty years, a parole officer calls Michael and informs him that Hannah is up for parole. “If you do not take responsibility for her, Hannah has no future at all,” she says. “Thank you for letting me know,” he replies.
He arrives at the prison. The beautiful woman of his youth is gone, replaced by an elderly grey-haired woman. He is holding back – a lot. He tells her that he has a friend who will give her a job and he has found a place for her to live. Details, details.
At one point he asks her if she thinks about the past and she says, with the slightest glimmer of hope, “With you?”
“No, not with me,” he says firmly. There is a lot of silent traffic between them. A lot. He tells her that he will pick her up in a week, when she is paroled. They do not hug goodbye. The lack of contact made me ache. But it is not the worst part.
She takes all of the books that he has sent her and all of the books checked out from the prison library and she stacks them on her desk and she hangs herself.
Michael arrives to collect her. The prison administrator tells him that she has died. Hannah has written a will. She wants her little bit of money to go to the one daughter who survived the fire, “and tell Michael I said hello.” Only then does Michael cry.
In New York, Michael finds the daughter who survived the fire. She’s an urbane New York woman living in a penthouse. Chic furniture. Lovely jewelry and clothes. Michael hands her a small tin with the money, Hannah’s tin. The woman takes the tin and gives back the money.
Michael takes his daughter to a church where he spent an afternoon with Hannah. Hannah has been buried in the cemetery there.
All this, the second half, is less powerful than the first half. I am too much reminded of its literary origin, everything is just too neat and self-referential. The only “sloppy” thing is the fact that he never forgave her while she was alive, that he could not touch her in prison. I appreciate that honesty. The cemetery, the tin, the stacks of books as a platform to hang herself are all too literal for me. But the love story is honest and disastrous, hurting everything it touches. The filmmaker found some pictures to make the Truth come true.