(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)
(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)
SW SCORE: 48
5 out of 5 🐙
I put off watching this movie because I thought it was going to be about depressed married couples in the 1950s. I’m an idiot. But after making the mistake of putting off a great movie because I thought it was another movie, I have now decided to not look at the description of any Best Picture nominee and just watch it. Otherwise, I put off great ones or I spend 30 minutes trying to find this unicorn of a perfect movie that perfectly fits my mood.
Oh, you want me to get on with my brilliant observations?
The film tells the story of two people, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes as the adult version and David Kross as the younger version) and Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), and their relationship in Berlin. The bulk of the film takes place in 1958, but there are also important happenings that occur between then and 1995, which isn’t a setting I have seen much of before. Less than a decade after the fall of the iron curtain, it was a pregnant time, with half of the continent flowing into the other for the first time in many decades. The only movie that remotely addresses this period that I’ve seen is The Lives of Others. I could not recommend that more.
Ok, I gotta focus.
A chance encounter results in Hanna helping a sick and drunken Michael as he sits covered in his own sick. She demands that Michael let her clean him up and takes him to her apartment. What follows is something one might find in Penthouse Letters, a scenario that would probably be imagined by many adolescent men on the planet (presuming they are heterosexual or bisexual or pansexual).
I don’t think I need to elaborate, other than Hanna’s unusual character is revealed by her unblinking, and almost aggressive openness and her certainly atypical, for the time , role in their first meeting. Both are done with a bare minimum of dialogue, a master bit of direction that would characterize the quality of direction in the rest of the film by Stephen Daldry.
The following scene is hilarious: it inter-cuts memories of the above encounter flashing into Michael’s mind as he has a normal conversation at dinner with his family. What other person wouldn’t be preoccupied with that kind of experience? No one. Their relationship continues and becomes a full-fledged adult relationship. It resembles more of a sexual friendship than a traditional love affair as Hanna is much older than Michael, a welcome reversal of the standard Hollywood paradigm.
The movie title becomes appropriate when Hanna asks Michael to read to her. He reads to her in German (English as presented in this movie) and she is enthralled and aroused, intellectually and sexually. When he starts to read to her in Greek and Latin, a scene reminiscent of John Cleese’s multi-linguistic seduction of Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda. Even more funny was a scene where Wanda’s disgust at the prurient nature of one of his readings is immediately followed by her irritated demand that he keep reading. That’s an old gag, but it’s still a good one.
SPOILER SECTION: (
The remainder of this section covers a lot of significant plot surprises and the ending, so you better stop reading now if you want to go in fresh. For those folks stopping, this is an amazing movie and I could not recommend it more)
It soon becomes apparent that Hanna cannot read. To keep her secret, she ends the relationship and fate intervenes and her workplace promotes her and that promotion will reveal her illiteracy. It’s another simple and clean and tight bit of storytelling in a screenplay full of such agility. She leaves town without so much as saying a single word to Michael, shattering his young, inexperienced heart.
The modern day plotline takes over and we see Michael is an adult, but he is clearly not a happy person. He meets with his daughter and he knows his lifelong depression and broken heart has clearly affected his relationship with his daughter. She seems to indicate otherwise and has kind words for her father. But he replies: “I wasn’t always open with you. I’m not open with anyone.”
It’s a crushing line in a screenplay with powerful, funny, and powerful dialogue. David Hare did an absolutely brilliant job of adapting Bernhard Schlink’s novel.
In a trial against several women who participated in atrocities at a concentration camp, it’s revealed that Hanna took a job as a concentration camp guard AND kept certain children alive just to read to her. It’s unclear how long their deaths were postponed or if any survived at all but her abuse of power in a dynamic that represents one of the most egregious and horrific abuses of power in history.
Michael has become a law professor and his students start observing the same trial and word gets back to Michael. Hanna could save herself because the evidence against her relied on her being literate, but her shame is so great that she cannot bring herself to testify that she cannot read. She would rather go to prison for decades than admit it. At this point, Michael realizes that she is illiterate and could reveal her secret and save her, but he can see the horror it would cause her. The scene where she is debating this choice is painful, and it’s really not that long, but it feels like an eternity is reflected in Winslet’s face as she contemplates what to most of us would be an easy choice. It clearly crushes her, and this is probably the singular moment that earned her the Best Actress Oscar.
Her mental abilities are on display at the trial with her incredible banal replies to horrific questions. She clearly does not grasp things like a typical adult would, and this was of course forecasted and displayed in the earlier plot timeline. When her answers dumbfound the judges, she is even unaware of why. She cannot grasp what she cannot grasp. It’s sharper at the trial, but this is the climax of the film, so that makes sense.
She is sent to life in prison and the other equally complicit guards are given short sentences. As he discusses this outcome with one of his law students, the student is disgusted. He asserts that the popular German excuse (now debunked) that only a few Germans knew about the final solution was garbage. There were thousands of camps and he says it’s not fair or just or worthwhile to use these six women on trial when thousands and thousands worked at camps and thousands more knew and did nothing. And he’s right. It is hardly a complete accounting. It is a diversion and an insufficient scapegoating.
Now that he realized that she was illiterate, he comes up with the idea to send her recordings of books and poems. In a montage that reminded me of the joyful end of Cinema Paradiso where the young film lover finally gets to see all censored scenes and he is overcome by joy, you can see Michael’s recorded words carry Hanna through her prison time and she is even inspired to teach herself how to read, using Michael’s words as the tool. Her diligent transcription is another touching scene. She soon begins to write to Michael and they do so for some time, her letters beginning with brief, heartbreakingly short sentences that are loaded with pain.
In another twist, Michael is set to be her support guardian as she returns to civilian life after being paroled. That doesn’t create the kind of reunion the audience would like, but their final exchange is crushing:
“You read a lot.” Michael says.
“I prefer being read to.”
“How do you feel?” He asks her how she feels about it all and she replies, in a statement that belies her atypical cognitive abilities: “It doesn’t matter what I feel. It doesn’t matter what I think. The dead are still dead.”
I didn’t think the epilogue was necessary at first, but it’s kind that Hanna got so send a final piece of apology to one of the children she exploited. The gift is the last beautiful visual touch of connection between Hanna and this victim’s daughter. It’s a perfect ending to a tremendous film.
(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.
(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)
(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so
(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)