It is 1958, and young Michael (David Kross), a lad of fifteen, is riding home one day on a streetcar in West Germany. Suddenly, he is taken ill. Wandering the city, he is nauseous and unkempt, stopping only to vomit several times in an alley. A nearby woman pauses, comes to his aid, and eventually takes him home. She remains a stranger. It is discovered that Michael has scarlet fever, and after being bedridden for many weeks, he searches for the kind angel who took pity on him. She is found without much effort, and within minutes, he is dirty from shoveling coal, asked to remove his clothing, and after a quick bath, is standing next to her naked form. She is Hanna (Kate Winslet), a mysterious creature of thirty-five, who appears to have been waiting for just such an opportunity. Soon, they make love. Again and again. Interrupted only by her desire to have him read from his school books. Classics and comics alike. She cries, sits enthralled, and when the mood strikes, envelops his manhood. Needless to say, he becomes obsessed. He confuses pleasures of the flesh for deep, abiding love. He spends more time with her than his own family. But after a summer, it is over. She vanishes into that good night.
Cue 1966, and Michael is in law school. Conveniently, as part of his education, he visits the local courthouse. And lordy be, wouldn’t you know it, but that same Hanna is on trial for war crimes. Seems she was an SS guard during World War II, and part of her gig was to select prisoners for execution. Oh, and she stood by while a church full of 300 women and children burned to the ground. Michael is appalled. How does one accept that the greatest sex of one’s life was with a Nazi? Should it matter? If you were to have your balls sucked dry, sent to a temporary nirvana, and left in utter rapture, would you regret the occurrence had she, but moments after wiping your man juice from her cheek, admitted to firebombing an orphanage? What if she had simply been Himmler’s nurse? It is here, though only for a moment, that Stephen Daldry’s The Reader considers a question not swallowed up by the banality of Holocaust chic: is the background, lifestyle, or morality of a sexual partner — again, not a spouse or close friend — ever important? More to the point, should an erection ever depend on the criminal or sociopathic tendencies of the person you sleep with? The film could have been a quiet classic has it chosen to venture down that road, but instead of insight and daring, it tossed away its first half, complete with anonymous intercourse, Winslet’s tits, and yes, Michael’s unjustly enormous brautwurst, and succumbed to the inanity of a show trial. I tuned out and damn near went to sleep.
Few films stop to consider the complexities of human sexuality, and what it might mean for a virginal teenager and Hitler henchwoman to shack up without shame or guilt. The moment the story leaves that depressing apartment, drenched in the sweat of two ships passing in the night, it becomes drab and ordinary, a mere tale of regret and longing that happens to have the deaths of six million as an overused backdrop. And when Michael becomes a man, as well as a hangdog Ralph Fiennes, we must endure his renewed effort to send this woman the 1970’s version of books-on-tape. Yes, friends, Hannah is illiterate, or has been, until she learns to read in jail. Seems she got a life sentence for the church thing, but only after the courtroom hissed, spat, and yelled, “Nazi!” in equal measure. She could have saved herself by admitting her learning disability (the case turned on an order that had to be written and signed), but apparently in Deutschland, not knowing how to read is far more humiliating than sending innocent people to their deaths. As it should be, I suppose. Murderers and war criminals are a dime a dozen these days, but Jesus, stuttering and stammering through a newspaper article? Inconceivable in civilized society. And so she serves her term, though not quite life, as she is eventually paroled in 1988. But she fears the outside, and hangs herself in her cell before Michael can come pick her up. Oh well. And so we beat on.
As if the film weren’t bad enough, the ride home damn near sent me to my grave. While flying down the interstate, the chest pains I’d been experiencing all day (all week, to be honest) started getting worse, and I broke out in a cold, clammy sweat. The world started closing in on me, and I informed my wife that I had to pull over. As I did so, and mere seconds after coming to a stop, I passed the fuck out. Dropped like a log. Before I went down, though, I remember thinking that the worst tragedy of all was that The Reader would be the last film I ever saw. Had I another few seconds of consciousness, I might have asked the little woman to wheel me into a screening of The Wrestler, just to be safe. Calm and collected, my wife took charge, got me going, and drove screeching to the hospital. I have a history of good health, but my fat ass may have caught up with me at last, so why take any chances? A few hours and many tests later, I received the all-clear. Not only had I not suffered cardiac arrest, everything looked perfect. My heart was a champion, my levels normal as can be, and from top to toe, no sign of anything other than machine-like efficiency. Sure, the doctor couldn’t explain my flirtation with unconsciousness, but I was alive and well. And likely to outlive each and every one of you. The kid’s alright. No thanks to that fucking movie.