Any film that tackles the theme of the Holocaust is bound to be highly emotive and slightly controversial, but add to this the subject of sexual affairs with underage boys and you’ve got quite a story.
Adapted from David Hare’s screenplay, the film is based on Bernard Schlink’s bestselling German novel of 1995, and starts in 1958 Berlin, with a coincidental meeting between 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) and 30-something Hanna Schmidt (Kate Winslet), a blunt yet kindly tram conductor who helps the boy when he falls ill outside her house. An unlikely yet none-the-less convincing affair develops between the two with no shortage of bare flesh on display in the numerous sex scenes that follow.
Part of their love-making involves Michael reading aloud to Hanna, whose own illiteracy becomes the central issue of the film. He reads her everything from Homer to Huckleberry Finn, completely unaware at the time that she is unable to read for herself.
This fact only becomes apparent several years later, when a second chance meeting occurs. Michael, now a promising law student, is attending a trial as a case study in which Hanna appears as one of the defendants. It transpires that she was previously an SS guard in Nazi Germany during which time she was jointly responsible for the death of 300 Jewish women as well as sending numerous others to their deaths at Aushwitz.
Here, the merits must go to Kross who plays the young Michael wrestling with his conscience in order to understand the person he loved and lost. A reignited obsession prevails as he is torn between his affection for Hanna and the newfound knowledge of her secret guilty past. His confused state is magnified when he goes on to discover that he holds key information which could aid her testimony – the fact that she is illiterate proves that she could not have been solely responsible for the crimes with which she is charged. However, for reasons which are left open to interpretation, he makes a conscious choice not to disclose this information and as a result, Hanna spends the next 20 years incarcerated.
Years pass and an adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes), perhaps still haunted by his decision, takes it upon himself to make recordings of all the books he once read to Hanna during their brief affair, and sends them to her in prison. This act of supreme kindness, knowing the atrocities that she has committed, is testimony to the pity he now feels for Hanna. By listening to each recording and following them in the books she takes out from the prison library, Hanna slowly teaches herself to read and write. A memorable scene showing her eagerly recognizing her first simple words reduces Hanna to a child-like figure, allowing us to empathise with Michael’s willingness to forgive.
Asking myself whether it was an Oscar-winning performance, having already seen Winslet’s exceptional performance in Revolutionary Road, I would say the natural transition of character, from seductress to the accused through to the convicted, which she delivers so convincingly, was sufficiently challenging to merit such acclaim.
Equally believably were David Kross and Ralph Fiennes’s joint portrayal of Michael Berg’s complex combination of inner turmoil and outer sincerity, which stems from his first innocent encounter with Hanna, is fluidly maintained throughout the film.
Are there any drawbacks? Well, while you more or less succumb to the fact that this was a German story being told in English with a German accent, however authentic, you couldn’t help feeling that a film with such literary significance would probably have been better spoken in its mother tongue. Nonetheless, under the sensitive and poignant direction of Stephen Daldry, I thought the overall way in which the intriguing intensity of Hanna and Michael’s relationship unfolded so beautifully, more than compensated for any language misjudgments.