Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
(R, 122 min.)
Academy Awards (2008)
Actress in a Leading Role: Kate Winslet
"Love does not alter / When it alternation finds." William Shakespeare
This is a tale of love and obsession, brutality and tenderness, guilt and, to a measure, recompense. But most of all, it is an unfettered examination of mankind’s paradoxical complexity, and as such, it defies easy classification.
It is not a Holocaust film, though it takes place in the half century that follows a post war Germany still haunted by its ghosts.
It is not a love story, though it is filled with lovemaking and its far-reaching ramifications.
Nor can it be classified as a rite of passage epoch, as our youth ages, but he never entirely makes it to manhood.
Most of The Reader is seen in flashback, framed as the reminiscence of an older Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), suave and successful, but somehow disconnected from life. The film offers an explanation. As Berg stares out his window, he spots a teenage boy on a bus who fades into a fifteen year old version of himself (David Kross) in 1958 Berlin.
Suddenly the boy rushes off the vehicle to retch in the closest alley. A woman returning from work (Kate Winslet) sees his plight and cleans up his mess and then him, in that order, finally seeing him to back to his neighborhood. She is neither brusque nor tender -- rather briskly efficient in her charity. A Victorian novel might speculate on the deep ramifications of that chance meeting, perhaps even drawing some symbolic portent to the young man’s vomit. The film merely follows young Michael to his sick bed and long recovery from what turns out to have been scarlet fever.
When he goes to thank her for her kindness with a bouquet of flowers, it is he who is deflowered. And the rest of the summer term young Michael Berg is under the spell of Hanna Schmitz, this thirty something streetcar ticket taker. She initiates him into the finer points of lovemaking as he does her to the classic words of Homer and Virgil in their post-coital reading sessions. He is smitten in the way only a fifteen-year-old innocent can be, rejecting the amorous glances of a beautiful classmate to steal up to the shabby one room apartment where Hanna waits. Then one day she is gone without a trace.
He sees her again, some eight years later, when as a law student, he observes a trial over some heinous war crimes just revealed in a book by one of the few survivors. Hanna is the chief defendant, separated from the other female SS prison guards mainly because she lacks their artifice, and finally, because of her shame. Only it is not the shame one would anticipate -- remorse for her part in the wholesale death of innocents – but Hanna’s refusal to admit to her illiteracy that earns her a life sentence while the others get only four years.
And all the while, young Michael must sit placidly with his fellows in the gallery, watching this idealized Eve of his youth revealed by her sordid past. He runs to the bathroom to retch again, but this time it is not due to scarlet fever, but a fever of his brain, revulsion at the reality of his first love. Many of us contract considerably milder versions of this malady at our class reunions, but Michael’s is such that he cannot fully get over it. At its core it is perhaps not so much loathing for Hanna, but self-loathing that arrests him emotionally.
Winslet well earns her Oscar for the artful unveiling of Hanna Schmitz. What we only gradually come to see as the film evolves is a woman not so much evil as unenlightened, as illiterate emotionally as she is with the written word. Her moral sense is as undeveloped as her reading abilities, yet in her artless way, she is able to conceal both from Michael during that summer of lost innocence so very long ago. It is a bliss that Michael can never forget, but one for which he can never quite forgive himself either.
One of young Michael’s romantic notions is a biking trip over the German countryside with Hanna. They stop at a small church where she is mesmerized by the young voices of the choir. And then he takes her to lunch at a country inn, where she lets him decide on what they shall eat. Years later, he realizes this is one of many clues to her illiteracy.
What did he choose? We shall never know, but I have chosen a German casserole modeled after the smaller individual meat-filled pastry pockets called Bierocks. Just the thing to reward all those miles of pedaling. Treat yourself to it, even if all you’ve done is walk to the parking lot.
Other delicious German delicacies to choose from:
German Bierock Casserole
A savory ground beef and sauerkraut mixture baked between two layers of crescent roll dough, in the style of bierock pastries. This is almost as good as the orginal bierock, but is a lot less time consuming!
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
- 1 (16 ounce) can sauerkraut, drained and pressed dry
- 2 (8 ounce) cans refrigerated crescent rolls
- 1 (8 ounce) package shredded Cheddar cheese
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
- Brown onion and ground beef in a large skillet over medium high heat; drain extra fat out of skillet, then stir in drained sauerkraut. Heat through and set aside.
- Press 1 package of crescent roll dough into the bottom of a lightly greased 9x13 inch baking dish. Spread beef mixture on top, then lay 2nd package of crescent roll dough over the top of the beef mixture. Press dough seams together and sprinkle all with cheese.
- Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Recipe Source: allrecipes.com