The Reader

I read The Reader in 1999; it was an Oprah book so it was everywhere that year. One could not appear in public with the book without being pelted with questions, “Isn’t it divine? Isn’t it amazing? A wonderful book…”

The book left me cold. I remember very little from it – only that Hannah was a Nazi prison guard and she had an affair with a young boy. Then she’s tried for war crimes and is found not guilty because she could not read. I think there was a piece of evidence, like an order she supposedly wrote, that proved conclusively she could not have done what they accused her of because she was illiterate.

I chose to see the movie version because Kate Winslet is in it. My instinct was correct. She is an amazing actress. Sometimes she appears to completely German, so of that era, that I blink my eyes and wonder if there is some sort of special effect, some trick of lighting or makeup to make her appear so vivid. There isn’t.

Her uncombed hair, rapidly tied back in a knot, her svelt body, the strange cant of her eyes and grim mouth are all effects, but the acting comes from inside her. She meets a young boy, Michael; she helps him home one afternoon. He returns to her home and she asks him to do some housework for her. He gets filthy so she tells him to take a bath. Such a strange juxtaposition of her strict, efficient, joyless exterior, and the obvious sensuality in her face. Before he gets into the bathtub, she stands behind him, not touching him, and kisses his shoulders. Her hand reaches around, gently taking his penis in her hand and she whispers, gravely, “This is why you came back.”

The boy is so very young. Maybe just fourteen or fifteen. The camera allows you to see his perfect contoured buttocks, his long legs, his narrow shoulders. The scene changes abruptly. Hannah is on top of him, her breasts exposed, her whole body rocking back and forth atop the boy. At no time while watching did it register that this was a moral trespass. Of course, you think, of course it happened this way.

The sex is filmed beautifully and honestly. The second time they are together, she drapes her leg over his shoulder and the winces; it is so honest that for a moment you feel like you’re watching something that should not be filmed at all. It is too private.

In another scene, she kisses his chest, lower, to the flat, perfect expanse of his belly. It is absolutely perfect. It is the kind of tenderness that makes you suffer in its absence.

After a fight, the boy comes into the bathroom where she is in the tub. Milky water does not obscure her breasts or the blurred triangle between her legs. This is what I mean by honesty. The camera shows you exactly what the boy sees. She is very angry, stiff with anger. “You do not mean enough to upset me!” she shouts. The boy says that he is sorry. He has never been with a woman before. He sits down on the edge of the tub. Her expression does not change, but you can see that she is changing. You see that she recognizes that he is very young and his youth affords him a measure of forgiveness.

“Do you love me?” he asks.

Her eyebrows betray a scrim of bewilderment when she realizes the answer. Very subtly, terrifyingly, she nods her head yes.

He reads to her. She lies in his arms and he reads her books. The love affair is beautiful but it is quickly overshadowed by the trial. The boy is watching but Hannah does not see him. He is older. Hannah is aged. She is accused of writing a report describing how, as a guard, she allowed a group of women to burn and die. The door was locked from the outside and she did not open the door. She is accused of writing the report. The other female guards testify that she wrote the report. The judge asks for a writing sample, and Hannah, overcome with shame, quickly changes her story and admits that she wrote the report.

The boy, a law student, knows this is not true. He goes to visit her in the prison where she is being kept but changes his mind. He returns to his college and makes love with another student.

The next day, Hannah is found guilty of murdering 300 people. The boy watches in silence. Hannah is sentenced to life in prison, and then she turns and looks at him squarely. He is weeping.

I think this is a flaw in the book. I don’t recall it very well, but I don’t believe it went into the significance of this. The movie makes it clear that he understood that she was guilty of those crimes. She slaughtered old women and babies. She sent them to their deaths. She was matter of fact about it, explaining at trial that they had to make room for the new Jewesses who arrived every day. “Where could we put them? What would you do?” Evil, horrible. And he loved her anyway. Michael is unique among movie characters because he is not so overcome with love that he will forgive genocide. He knows right from wrong. He loves her, and he allows her punishment to happen with no interference from him. It is painful for him. But that is what makes his silence so moving.

Many years pass. He sends Hannah some tapes in prison. He sends a tape of himself reading “The Odyssey” by Homer – the first book he read to her when they were first lovers.

One day in prison, when Hannah is very old, she goes to the prison library and checks out “The Lady With The Little Dog” by Checkov. Michael has sent her a tape of him reading this, and again it was a book he read to her as her lover. It is almost painfully poignant watching her learn to read as an old woman by listening to her lover’s voice, looking at the words on the page, watching it finally click in her mind.

Michael receives a letter. It is from Hannah. It says, in firm childish writing, “Thank you for the latest, kid. I really liked it.”

She writes new letters: “Please send me more romance.”

He does. He receives more letters:

“I think Schiller needs a woman.”

“Are you getting my letters? RightWrite me.”

He does not. Nor does he visit. He simply sends the tapes.

After being in prison for twenty years, a parole officer calls Michael and informs him that Hannah is up for parole. “If you do not take responsibility for her, Hannah has no future at all,” she says. “Thank you for letting me know,” he replies.

He arrives at the prison. The beautiful woman of his youth is gone, replaced by an elderly grey-haired woman. He is holding back – a lot. He tells her that he has a friend who will give her a job and he has found a place for her to live. Details, details.

At one point he asks her if she thinks about the past and she says, with the slightest glimmer of hope, “With you?”

“No, not with me,” he says firmly. There is a lot of silent traffic between them. A lot. He tells her that he will pick her up in a week, when she is paroled. They do not hug goodbye. The lack of contact made me ache. But it is not the worst part.

She takes all of the books that he has sent her and all of the books checked out from the prison library and she stacks them on her desk and she hangs herself.

Michael arrives to collect her. The prison administrator tells him that she has died. Hannah has written a will. She wants her little bit of money to go to the one daughter who survived the fire, “and tell Michael I said hello.” Only then does Michael cry.

In New York, Michael finds the daughter who survived the fire. She’s an urbane New York woman living in a penthouse. Chic furniture. Lovely jewelry and clothes. Michael hands her a small tin with the money, Hannah’s tin. The woman takes the tin and gives back the money.

Michael takes his daughter to a church where he spent an afternoon with Hannah. Hannah has been buried in the cemetery there.

All this, the second half, is less powerful than the first half. I am too much reminded of its literary origin, everything is just too neat and self-referential. The only “sloppy” thing is the fact that he never forgave her while she was alive, that he could not touch her in prison. I appreciate that honesty. The cemetery, the tin, the stacks of books as a platform to hang herself are all too literal for me. But the love story is honest and disastrous, hurting everything it touches. The filmmaker found some pictures to make the Truth come true.

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  1. Very nice review of the movie…I am currently reading the book, and it was leaving me pretty cold as well.

    Looks like this is a case where the movie is better than the book.

  2. Cara Ellison says:

    Nish, the movie is much better than the book. I’d be curious to hear your opinion if you see it!

  3. Cara — It’s weird, I read this book around the same time as you and had the same reaction. Left me cold for some inexplicable reason. I remember virtually nothing of it, but based on this review — and Kate Winslet — I will probably rent the movie now.

    Great review.

    Thanks, hon.

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    Oh, I highly recommend the movie. Kate Winslet was amazing. Seriously, prepare to have your socks knocked off. When she appears as a frail, grey, old woman – German, no less – you believe with all your heart that is who she really is. She was utterly luminous as a young woman in love with a boy, and she was utterly devastating on trial for war crimes, and utterly believable as an elderly woman at the end of her life.

    Ralph Finnes was good too, but I sort of resented him because I wanted to see more Kate. The young boy who plays her lover is very cute too, and a pleasure to watch. But nobody outshines Kate Winslet. I think for the first time in my life I have a “favorite actress.”

  5. Oh, she’s one of my favorites for sure. So many great performances. I saw her first in “Heavenly Creatures” when she was — what? — 18 or something? And a few years ago, I really thought she’d win the Oscar for “Little Children.” Loved that movie.

    I’m so glad she’s finally gotten her due, you know?

  6. Cara Ellison says:

    I missed Little Children but I *loved* the book and now that you’ve reminded me of it, I’ll need to find the movie!

    I thought she was okay in Titanic but I didn’t pay much attention to her really until Spotless Mind. At that point it was HCL: Hard Core Love. : )

  7. David MacKenzie says:

    *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    I saw the movie not knowing anything about it. Kate is very powerful in it, agreed. Do I understand you correctly that in the book she was not found guilty? So how did all of that 15-20 years later stuff happen in the book?

    I thought that the movie was very brave by attempting to put a human face on people like German guards, people doing their “jobs” out of a need for self-preservation. Not a very popular notion these days. It’s like the Winslet character had to shut down emotionally to keep surviving after the horrors of the war. But still needed sex!

  8. Cara Ellison says:


    I don’t remember. My recollection was that she was found not guilty in the book, but I don’t know why I think that. As I said, I wasn’t very into the book and it was a lot of years ago.

    I did like the way she handled the trial. She was saying yes, she needed a job, and her job was to guard the women. I liked how straightforwardly she played it. She was so honest, so undefensive about it.

  9. lgraves65 says:

    So the fact that Hannah is a rapist didn’t register with you?

    /says the mother of a 15-year-old boy who is offended that, had the sexes been reversed, this movie would’ve been banned

  10. David MacKenzie says:

    Can’t speak for the book, but the movie didn’t seem to portray him as that young…

    And sorry mother of 15-year-old boy, why don’t you ask your son if he is offended? Banning movie? Guess we know who stands with the book burners too!

    Right now, I’m going to steal my daddy’s cue and make a living out of playing pool… oh Maggie I couldn’t have tried… anymore…

  11. Cara Ellison says:


    Let me say first of all that I do not believe in banning movies, however offensive they may be.

    That being said, and I know this is going to be controversial, I do not believe that all underage kids are traumatized by sex.

    Even as a very young teenager, I knew that I was too good for those teenage boys who were my peers. I deserved my equal, and my equal was probably a 40-50 year old businessman who had something to teach me about the world, and somebody who could protect and guide me while I was trying to figure out who I was. I am only talking about myself here. And it’s not license to say that it’s good for 14 year old girls to sleep with 50 year old men – but sometimes society’s rules are really stupid. They are created for the average and I am not average – though I try very hard to abide by the rules.

    Speaking only for myself, I’ve never slept with men my own age. My one exception to that was a huge mistake because he was too immature. I quickly learned my lesson. The men who loved me, loved me. Age was removed from the equation because they recognized that I was way, way out on the right of the bell curve, and I recognized the same in them.

    Now, when Hannah seduced the boy, you really believe that was rape? I do not. Or if it was, I do not see it being a negative thing. He was very young, but he loved her – and he handled himself very maturely. Remember when they were at the restaurant and he paid for the meal. The cashier said, “I hope you and your mother have a good afternoon,” (or something to that effect) and he replied, with utter calmness and graciousness, “She enjoyed her meal very much.” He knew how to handle himself is what I’m getting at here. Yes, he was extremely young. Yes, he was vulnerable. But no, it was not rape.

    Plus, I would consider the time. It was a war and war has a way of maturing people.

    I know that most people will come back and say, “Would you want your 15 year old child sleeping with a 38 year old man?”

    To them I say: if such a scenario were true, I would not approve. But that’s the point: we’re talking about a hypothetical, average situation. Hannah was average, I think… but the boy was not. The boy had a huge soul, the need to be extraordinary (hence his education in law, his willingness to watch Hannah tried and to accept her punishment.)

    He came to her at the end. He loved her – remember the scene with the Jewish woman when he gives her Hannah’s meager savings? The woman says, “Did Hannah ever acknowledge the effect she had on you?” He came to her. He sent her tapes. He could not be her lover, but he was continuing to answer a deep need inside her, and despite everything she had done, he loved her too, else he would not have sent her those tapes, or come to her at the end.

    So no, I do not accept that Hannah was a rapist. I believe she was evil for her role in the Holocaust, but her love for Michael was, I think, the one tiny flickering bit of goodness within her.

  12. Cara Ellison says:

    David, in the movie he says he was fifteen.

  13. David – Lisa wasn’t saying she wanted to ban the movie. Think you might need to read her comment again (unless I am misunderstanding your comment, in turn).

  14. lgraves65 says:

    I didn’t say I wanted to ban the movie, I said it probably WOULD’VE been banned, or at the very least there would’ve been a great hue and cry, if the sexes had been reversed. Girls are victims, even 15-year-old ones, and boys are not. That is how society sees it, and glorifying movies like this just perpetuates that myth.

  15. Cara Ellison says:

    I don’t think that. I think anyone can be a victim.

    But what is interesting is that society doesn’t think so. Look at all the naughty teacher cases – women having sex with fifteen year old boys. Most of the time, most men make comments like they wish they had teachers like that.

    I don’t know why this is. But that’s how we see things.

  16. David MacKenzie says:

    First, I apologize about my banning movies inference. While lgrave didn’t say she wanted to do so, I took from her comment that she thought it would be appropriate to ban the movie if the roles were reversed.

    Second, at the outset, at the age of 15 or 51 people can be, and often are, male or female, sexually exploited, raped, taken advantage of, duly injured, victimized and all sorts of horrible things – in all sincerity – I acknowledge that and my heart goes out to anyone who has been through such an experience.

    Third, I don’t think that’s what happened in the movie. I agree with Cara at the age of 15 he had a bit more of a sense of maturity or at the very least awareness about him.

    But maybe that was the point — how the horrors of war, even felt by one its perpetrators, impact, seduce and take the innocence away of all who come after them?

    Have all of us not been made somewhat less innocent (in a broad sense, not sexual), by what the Nazi’s did? That kind of horror has become one of our shared reference points in history, culture, the like.

    Much like the feeling of something being taken away from all of us after 9-11.

  17. I know this is late, but I finally watched the entire movie last night, and I still say Michael was victimized by Hanna.

    I hesitated to use the word “traumatize,” but, yeah. He was affected by his “affair” with her for the rest of his life. His ability to form and retain attachments was demolished — remember, he didn’t even come back for his father’s funeral. He couldn’t date like a normal college student, he couldn’t even stay married.

    All of that, IMO, stems from “falling in love” with a 36-year-old woman when he was a child. Did I feel he loved Hanna? Yes. But that love kept him 15.

    But god, how awesome was the kid who played him? I read on IMDB that the sex scenes were filmed last — they had to wait until he turned 18.

  18. Cara Ellison says:

    You’ve got some really excellent points there, points I didn’t consider. I suppose I might have to re-think my position.

    Yes, he was absolutely phenomenal, I thought. Truly amazing.

    So overall did you like the movie?

  19. I did. I thought the sex scenes — while ooky, ’cause remember, I have two teenage boys — were beautifully done. Erotic, but not dirty, if that makes sense.

    I thought I would be bored with the whole trial part, but again, David Kross totally aced those scenes. When she basically “admitted” that she killed those women, you could tell he was almost about to throw up. His distress was palpable. And when she was sentenced, and he started weeping? Dude.

    I also really liked the character of the law professor. It’s so hard, when you work in the legal profession, to maintain that sense of balance between what’s wrong morally, and what’s wrong LEGALLY. And I thought the writers did a good job of that man’s struggle with that, and how, in the middle of his struggle, to TEACH students how to deal with their own struggles.

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