At a key moment in “The Reader,” German law professor Rhol (Bruno Ganz, “Youth Without Youth”) tells his seminar students that civilization, despite what most people believe, isn’t held together by morality. It’s bound by law, and one’s adherence to the law must be judged by what was legal at any given moment. Does he say that because it’s true or does he say it because he’s old enough to have been a Nazi, and even 30 years after the war ended, he’s still trying to find a way to justify his past?
That’s not even the major dilemma in the movie, nor is Rhol a major character. It is, however, an example of the questions of conscience that permeate the film, which begins in 1958 Germany. An ailing high school student of 15, Michael Berg (played as a youth by David Kross), is rescued on the street by 30-something Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet, “Revolutionary Road”). She takes Michael to his home where he convalesces for three months. Returning to her flat to thank Hanna, the young man joins in a game of mutual seduction and a summer romance blossoms before they separate.
Nearly a decade passes and Michael is a law student. Observing the trial of six women accused of locking 300 Jewish women and children in a church and forcing them to burn to death when the church is destroyed by Allied bombers, Michael sees that Hanna is one of the women. He knows something about her that would drastically reduce her sentence. She admits her involvement in the affair “ she sees “guilt” as too strong a word. Legality and morality butt heads and the young man is faced with a choice that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The story, written for the screen by British playwright David Hare and based on the German novel by Bernhard Schlink, is told in a series of flashbacks. The Michael of 1990, who is yet again reliving the events, is played by the brilliant Ralph Fiennes (“In Bruges”), who, sitting in front of a blank wall, can relay more hope and despair with one penetrating stare than most actors can convey with a roomful of scenery to chew.
Young German actor Kross is Michael as the empty vessel into which is poured the ingredients that will percolate into a man. Since he receives so much from the older Hanna, and since so much is missing from her soul, middle-aged Michael is a forlorn, lost man.
The damaged heart of the film is Winslet’s Hanna. At her trial, she seems bewildered that anyone can’t understand her wartime situation. Seemingly she comes to believe that what she did was wrong, but she never appears to figure out how or why. Winslet is the finest actress of her generation, always able to create characters who hide as much as they display “ no easy task.
Director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”), screenwriter Hare and production designer Brigitte Broch have cut the heart out of the 20th century and laid it on a piece of velvet for us to study. The terrible thing is that it’s our heart, too.