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For 'The Reader,' Guilt Travels From Page To Screen

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For 'The Reader,' Guilt Travels From Page To Screen

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For 'The Reader,' Guilt Travels From Page To Screen

For 'The Reader,' Guilt Travels From Page To Screen

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Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink says the generational complicity and coping explored in The Reader aren't just German topics. Getty Images hide caption

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First published in Germany in 1995 and recently adapted to film, Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader wrestles with guilt and complicity across generations.

The novel tells the story of a 15-year-old German boy's love affair with an older woman who, he later learns, worked for the Nazis during World War II.

Schlink tells Ari Shapiro that although the book is set in Germany and centers on Nazi war crimes, it isn't about the Holocaust per se. Rather, he says, it's about "the problem of what does it mean to us [and] how do we cope with the fact that someone we love, admire [and] respect turns out to have committed an awful crime?"

Speaking as a member of Germany's "second generation" — the generation that came after World War II — Schlink explains: "It's an unsolvable problem — the second generation can't just expel the parent generation from its love and solidarity."

And yet, he says, not breaking from the guilty often means that the second generation becomes entangled in that guilt. For Schlink, the conflict came to light when he learned that one of his favorite teachers had denounced people to the Gestapo during World War II.

Schlink hopes that his fiction will help the generations to come:

"The second generation finally wasn't and isn't silenced by revulsion, shame and guilt," he says. "We all tried ... to make that past speak out for our [generation] and — even more so — the next generations."

'The Reader': A Holocaust Story Lost In Translation

Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz and David Kross as Michael i

Hanna Schmitz (right, Kate Winslet) mysteriously disappears after her brief affair with young Michael Berg (David Kross). Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company hide caption

toggle caption Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company
Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz and David Kross as Michael

Hanna Schmitz (right, Kate Winslet) mysteriously disappears after her brief affair with young Michael Berg (David Kross).

Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company

The Reader

  • Director: Stephen Daldry
  • Genre: Holocaust drama
  • Running Time: 123 minutes

Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.

Watch Clips

'This Is Disgusting ... Go On'

'Your Mother'

'Interview'

Kate Winslet and David Kross as young Michael Berg i

As their relationship deepens, Michael finds that Hanna loves being read to. Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company hide caption

toggle caption Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company
Kate Winslet and David Kross as young Michael Berg

As their relationship deepens, Michael finds that Hanna loves being read to.

Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company
Ralph Fiennes as older Michael Berg i

Ralph Fiennes plays an older, more subdued Michael Berg. Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company hide caption

toggle caption Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company
Ralph Fiennes as older Michael Berg

Ralph Fiennes plays an older, more subdued Michael Berg.

Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company

Adapting a literary novel to film is always tricky, and it's all the more so when language itself is among the book's subjects. Thus begin the problems of The Reader, a British movie of a well-reviewed German novel about issues both moral and bookish.

The movie is in English, of course, which immediately puts some viewers at a disadvantage: They can't know that the German title, Der Vorleser, refers only to someone who reads out loud.

That person is Michael, introduced as a melancholy lawyer (Ralph Fiennes) in mid-'90s Berlin. But he first became that sort of reader almost 40 years earlier, when he was 15 (and played by David Kross).

Like the earlier The Hours, also from director Stephen Daldry, The Reader leaps about in time — which doesn't boost its momentum. Rather than evoking memory's knotted tapestry, the relentless flashbacks and flash-forwards seem merely mechanical.

One day in 1958, teenage Michael is overcome by illness on his way home from school. He's helped by Hanna (stalwart Kate Winslet), a tram conductor who generally keeps to herself. After a long recuperation, Michael returns to thank his benefactor. Soon, Hanna's bathing him, and when he steps from the tub, he discovers that she too is naked.

The two meet regularly for sex thereafter, and after the first few trysts, Hanna demands a singular form of foreplay: Michael must read to her. Chekhov, Twain, Tintin and Lady Chatterley's Lover — "This is disgusting ... go on" — are among the schoolboy's selections.

Michael tells Hanna he loves her, and she sometimes hints that she shares his feelings. Then she disappears.

Hanna has two secrets, neither of which is hard to guess. One of them, which can be intuited simply from the place and period, is confirmed eight years later. Now a law student, Michael joins his professor (a sly Bruno Ganz) and classmates as observers at a trial. The defendants are former death-camp guards, and one of them is Hanna.

Personifying postwar Germany, Michael is conflicted. He wants to help Hanna, yet is repulsed by what she did. For many years, Michael is haunted by Hanna, who remains his great love. But all he can bring himself to do is become her reader again, reciting books onto cassette tapes that he sends to her in prison.

Long divorced and distant from his grown-up daughter, the morose lawyer is supposedly scarred by his underage fling with a woman twice his age. (He's so bummed that he can't even rouse himself to emulate the other cast members' German accents.) Michael is apparently meant to be the last of Hanna's victims, the postwar equivalent of the doomed children who read to her while behind barbed wire.

Yet all The Reader offers to support this parallel is the older Michael's funk. When his teenage self is in bed with Hanna, in scenes that are alluringly lighted and frankly erotic, the lovers appear quite happy. The legal age of consent aside, Michael does not look like he's being manipulated or molested.

Some crucial points are simply lost in David Hare's script, which abbreviates Michael's strained relationship with his father and eliminates the books that influence Hanna as her prison term nears its end. The effect is muddled, so that this potentially horrific tale bewilders more than it shocks.

Ultimately, the older Michael gets a sharp lecture from a Holocaust survivor (a fine cameo by Lena Olin). Yet the issue of guilt remains unresolved. For closure, The Reader's viewers just may have to open the book.

Books Featured In This Story

The Reader

by Bernhard Schlink

Paperback, 218 pages |

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