January 18, 2009 -- “The Reader” is a psychological drama about a man's mixed feelings about a woman he had an affair with years earlier. The affair, which happens shortly after World War II in Germany, would have been called statutory rape in the United States. Michael Berg (played by David Kross), a young boy still in high school has a sexual affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet of “Revolutionary Road”), a woman some 20 years his senior. She takes advantage of the boy to a certain extent. That doesn't bother him too much until years later Berg finds out that Schmitz was a guard in a Nazi prison camp and that she was responsible for the deaths of numerous prisoners under her control.
A law student, Berg witnesses a legal proceeding against Schmitz and her fellow defendants. He notices something in the trial that would help her defense, but offers her no help. Part of the complexity of the story is that Berg seems to be taking more than her share of the blame for what happened during the war. Is she being noble, is her conscience bothering her, or is she simply hiding another secret? To what extent does she feel guilt for what she did? Another part of the puzzle is Berg's disgust for what Schmitz did to the Jewish prisoners and how she manipulated him. Schmitz liked to have prisoners read to her. She also had Berg read to her. Another part of the puzzle is how much guilt Berg himself felt as a German for what Nazi Germany did to the Jews and others during the war.
Years later, Berg (played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes of “The Constant Gardener”) finds out that Schmitz is still in prison. He begins reading books aloud and sending the recordings to her in prison. He finally goes to visit her shortly before her scheduled release from prison. His feelings for Schmitz are still mixed, however. He can't bring himself to fully embrace the old woman as he once did. Schmitz herself remains as enigmatic as ever. Her reaction to her release from prison, and to her own guilt about what she did during the war, raises more questions than it answers. The relationship between Berg and Schmitz is a complicated one, to say the least. The acting is excellent by all the main players. Production values are good. This is a classy, thoughtful film, even though it does have a good deal of nudity in it. Like Schmitz and Berg's feelings about themselves and each other, I too have mixed feelings about this film. It rates a B.
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