The Reader


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"The notion of secrecy is central to Western literature"

 ... so says a character in The Reader, and the author of this story must truly believe that, because the entire film, and I presume the source novel, is driven by the premise that secrecy is the key to plotting as well as characterization.

In the first portion of the story, which takes place in 1958, a 15-year-old man in Germany engages in an passionate summer romance with a woman who is some twenty years older. Their time together consists entirely of sex and his reading to her. The secrecy theme is introduced in two ways. First, most obviously, they must keep their romance a secret from the boy's family. Second, the older woman is filled with secrets of her own. After they have made love as strangers on three separate occasions, the young boy simply asks her name. She responds with fear and suspicion, as if it were still Nazi times and her last name were Cohen. She will only reveal that her first name is Hannah. We will soon learn why she wants to be as anonymous as possible.

We next see her completely abandon her life, leaving neither farewell note nor forwarding address, when offered a promotion into management from her job as a streetcar conductor. She is protecting a secret. The boy does not see her for another decade, at which time he is a graduate student in a law school, and she is on trial for war crimes.

Turns out she was a guard at Auschwitz.

And you thought YOUR first girlfriend was a bitch!

Amazingly enough, I have not really spoiled the key secret. While the woman's Nazi past is hidden from us and from her young lover during their liaison in the film's first act, that is not the big secret which drives the plot. It is something else: something which caused her to become a concentration camp guard instead of accepting a wartime promotion at Siemens; something which caused her to give up her job when the streetcar authorities wanted her in the office; something which caused her to choose the young man as her lover in 1958; something which caused her to accept far greater culpability for Auschwitz than she deserved. What is the final secret? I won't tell you, but I will say that it will be obvious if you pay attention to the movie. The answer is already buried somewhere in these paragraphs, if you care to search for it.

That is my secret.

Hannah and I are not the only one with secrets. The young man has several of his own. He knows a key fact which would have a very significant impact on her trial, providing absolute proof that she could not have done something of which she is accused. He never reveals it.

Like Hannah, he has even more secrets. Although the young man continues to maintain a certain level of contact with Hannah throughout his adult life, he never tells anyone else about their relationship until after her death. His abnormal childhood relationship with Hannah, and his failure to save her when he could have, continue to torment and haunt him through a failed marriage and any number of subsequent sexual relationships. He remains distant from genuine human contact. In a certain way, he continues his relationship with Hannah for decades, even after her imprisonment. He can't have sex with her any more, but he can still recapture their summer of love by reading to her, and so he does, by sending "books on tape" to her prison.

Kate Winslet turns in a very impressive performance in the lead. She completely abstains from the temptation any actor must feel to make his or her screen presence sympathetic. She manages to make the character complicated and credible, but never likable. She had to be physically unappealing as well. Even the character's best scenes never allow Winslet to appear as attractive as she really is, and as the character ages, Winslet turns decrepit - and quite convincingly as well, not with showy actor's tricks, but just by trying to hew to reality. I don't think Winslet has a false moment in this film.

Most of the laurels earned by the film have been placed on which Winslet's brow, but I disagree with many of the negative assessments of The Reader. The more I thought about this movie, the more I realized that every facet of the story line had been given a great deal of thought, and that every scene played an important role in plot and/or character development. (Although a couple of scenes really stretch viewer credulity.) Moreover, the film maintains a consistently appropriate sadness in the atmosphere, and often achieves true visual excellence. It is difficult to watch because all of the characters keep everything inside instead of sharing. If they just spoke their minds and told their secrets, the film would be over in an hour or less, but that's not the kind of people they are nor the kind of time they lived in. Moreover, those sorts of secrets would be difficult to discuss for anyone, even today's overmedicated, overtherapied oversharers. The pace of the film is chelonian and it is a somber frown-fest, to be sure, but you can read the plot summary and see that there is no real opening for chuckles or rapid-fire action. It is what it has to be, an extremely depressing movie, but one well worth a look for those who appreciate dramas which treat serious ideas.

The Reader has often been called a Holocaust movie, but it is not. It cannot avoid discussing the Holocaust because it is about a German woman born in 1922 who stands trial for her participation in the Final Solution, and it features a lot of other Germans from that same generation who are trying to expunge their collective guilt by placing Hannah and a few others on trial. The film does not shy away from Hannah's real crimes, or German society's, but neither does it picture them. No scene takes place before 1958.

The Reader has also been called a movie which fails to condemn statutory rape, and that is also incorrect. First of all, the man had reached the age of legal consent then applicable in post-war Germany, so there is no statutory rape. Neither is there sympathy for Hannah. The young man never recovers from his relationship with Hannah, and is never able to live a normal life afterwards, so there is no forgiveness or understanding of Hannah's having seduced him. In fact, a secret revealed later in the film indicates to us and to him that Hannah might have ordered him to the gas chambers if they had met under different circumstances, because that is what she did with other young people who had read to her years earlier. We can understand why she did what she did, but we never have any sympathy for those actions or for her. It is clear that she has no remorse. If she got the chance to live her life again, she wouldn't do anything different about the Auschwitz prisoners or about the seduction of the young boy. It is always clear to us that the only reason the youngster makes love to her is that he's a 15-year-old boy in love and lust for the first time, and she is a moderately attractive and sexually needy woman. That set of circumstances causes him to ignore her hard edges, her frustrating remoteness, and her ubiquitous secrecy. We are not led to desire her as our lover, and it's obvious that the boy would never have chosen her if he had been his 35-year-old self, but he is what he is, and that makes him place her on a pedestal. On the other hand, we do not have contempt for her any more than we have respect. She's not the picture of cartoon evil like a Bond villain, but simply a terrifying reminder of how any Joe Lunchpail of average or below average intelligence can easily become complicit with evil when one of those cartoon maniacs does appear, in this case Herr Hitler.

Not only are we unsympathetic to Hannah's seduction, but we can also see that the boy's age is neither gratuitous nor arbitrary. The plot and the young man's character development absolutely require that Hannah be that treasured first love so many of us have had, so that he would obsess about her for years, as so many of us obsess about our own first loves; and so that he would keep that obsession a secret from his future lovers, as we usually do with our irreplaceable memories of first love. If the lad had already had previous girlfriends, the story would not work. As I mentioned earlier, I felt that the story was constructed meticulously, and it absolutely required him to be about 15 years old.

All the talk of the Holocaust and statutory rape missed the point. In a very real sense, this film is like the second Lolita film, the serious one. Both films are about the loss of "first love" turning into a lifelong obsession in which the man tries continually to recapture what he lost when that love was shattered.

Since they come from the central core of Western literature, both Lyne's Lolita and The Reader are about keeping secrets, and the impact of doing so, both on those who keep them and those from whom they are kept.


(Nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture)


(A 1999 selection of the Oprah Book Club)


3.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
3 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
60 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
58 (of 100)








7.9 IMDB summary (of 10)










Box Office Mojo. Its maximum distribution has been 500 theaters, and it hovered around $1.5 million per weekend for several weeks. It never cracked the top 15. The total gross at press time was $10m.














Kate Winslet never did a full frontal, but spent about ten minutes of this film naked, nearly naked, and/or having sex.

Jeannette Hain is naked in the opening scene, which establishes certain character flaws in the adult version of the young boy, presumably stemming from the childhood experiences about to be revealed in flashback. Full frontal and rear views.














Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is not a film with universal appeal. I didn't like it much myself, but I admire what it accomplished. It is a thoughtful and meticulously crafted movie.