Reader, The (2008)

Rated: R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.

Length: 122 minutes

Grade: BGDA=B

Budget: $32 million

Box Office: $83 million (34 U.S., 49 Intl.)

Written by: David Hare (Nothing you’d know), based on the book by Bernhard Schlink.

Directed by: Stephen Daldry (Who must be the unacknowledged half brother of of Timothy Robbins and Greg Kinnear) (The Hours, Billy Elliot)

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jeanette Hain, David Kross, and Kate Winslet.


In 1958 Germany, a teenage boy begins a sexual relationship with a woman in her late thirties, which eventually involves him reading classics to her because she is illiterate. Years after she breaks it off and he is a law student, he discovers himself observing a Nazi war crimes trial in which she is a defendant for having been a concentration camp guard.

Entertainment Value: B

Okay, this movie was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture, adaptation, direction, and cinematography, but only Kate Winslet won for best actress. She deserves it, but I’m not at all convinced that the movie deserved so much attention. It worries me because there seems to be a trend that Hollywood highly acclaims any movie dealing with sexual aberrancy, and they appear especially fond of pedophilia. That said, we almost quit watching what was basically an underage porno for the first 45 minutes or so, but something in me suspected there might be more to this movie. There was, and the movie is worth watching, I guess. But even though I give it a B, I still feel like the movie was more than unnecessarily graphic about sexuality.

Superficial Content: G (as in worse than F, not to be confused with rated G.)

Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity G, Violence A, Language A, Illegality A

There’s a moderate amount of drinking and smoking. A woman is implied to have killed herself, and there is some discussion of a church burning with prisoners trapped inside it. But the real issue here is sex and nudity, which is graphic and repeated often in the first half of the film. This film should really be NC-17 for sexual content.

Significant Content: D

I have to say that the lessons here are a bit hard to identify and evaluate. I’ll give you what I think the main impact of this film is teaching. Sexual relationships between an adult woman and a teenage boy are fine. People are powerfully, even devastatingly, motivated by their notions of shame, although what they are ashamed of may not make sense to other people. Literature is often both a way of developing our moral and emotional senses as well as an expression of them.

Artistic/Thought Value: A

Like any good piece of art, the lessons here must be drawn out because they aren’t spoon fed to us. In my opinion, this is essentially a character study built around the notion of shame. It’s an unpleasant film to watch, almost a clinic in abnormal psychology only without all the gruesomeness of most such portraits.


Discussion Questions:

~Hanna often seems emotionally inept or even emotionless, but she also seems overemotional when touching moments in books occur. How do you explain this seeming discrepancy? Also consider the fact that she met Michael when she was kind to him during his illness. What is the movie trying to tell us about her or about people in general here?

~What is this movie trying to say about literature and the classics? Would Hanna have behaved differently if she had been literate or read the classics? Consider the Nazi preoccupation with high culture in your answer.

~Hanna seems virtually unashamed of her role in the death of a group of Jewish prisoners when she is testifying but is tremendously ashamed of her illiteracy. Why?

~Why do you think she tried to learn to read in jail? Why does the ending seem so frustrating?

~Why does Michael love her? Is his love mature or immature? Why? To what degree does love depend on unique, even secret, knowledge of a person? What interpretive key to this movie do you derive from the literature professor’s comments about the vital importance of secrecy in classic literature? Is this story an epic? A tragedy? Something else?

~What do you make of Michael’s decision concerning his knowledge of her and the trial?

~Why does Michael communicate with her in jail? What is he trying to accomplish? Does his persistence in doing this seem to fit with his lack of emotion about the project and her?

~Does Michael experience any shame in this movie? How does shame motivate him?

~Have you ever been ashamed of something? How did (or does) that sense affect you? How does Christianity deal with shame?

~Why do the German citizens hold the former Nazi guards in such contempt and hatred? Is this their way of proving to themselves how much better they want to believe they are? Is it because the guards remind them of their own complicity? It’s been claimed by some that black police officers are the harshest in their treatment of black criminals. Why might this be so, and what connection is there?

~Why is this movie told as a retrospective primarily? Why does it keep asking us the question of what was to be learned from various situations?

~How do understanding and condemnation tend to function against each other in our moral thinking? Is it at all frightening that God can fully understand and still fully condemn our sins?

Overall Grade: B
It’s semi-entertaining, fairly interesting to ponder, but certainly quite unfun to watch in the beginning.

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