Schmitz’s insatiable need for love and physical intimacy is revealed as she and teenager Michael Berg (handsome newcomer David Kross) form a passionate yet secretive affair. A major part of their bond entails her being read to, and Berg introduces her to the great classics, ranging from The Odyssey to Huck Finn to the more racy Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
More secrets unfold eight years later, as Michael, now a law student, discovers, while observing a Nazi war crimes trial, Schmitz’s hidden past. Ralph Fiennes plays the adult Michael, a very complex character, reflecting on his youth, effectively shown through the film’s use of vivid flashbacks.
When asked if he was happy with the finished product, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) modestly responds, “It’s quite an accurate portrayal and look at post-WWII Germany, and how second and third generation Germans have dealt with truth and reconciliation and coming to terms with the crimes of another.”
Although Winslet wasn’t originally the first choice for the role of Schmitz (Nicole Kidman had been cast, but declined due to pregnancy), “in the end, she brilliantly portrays an ambiguous, desperate figure,” says Daldry, revealing how much she cares, yet showing little remorse, and is highly likely to be nominated for Best Actress come Oscar time.
Daldry explains that screenwriter David Hare wanted to calibrate how much empathy the audience would (or wouldn’t) have for Schmitz’s character – “If she came to a place of mea culpa, there could be a danger of not a true, accurate expression of that generation of Germans, [war criminals] and their denial of guilt.”
One of Shlink’s main themes (in both book and film) is forgiveness, with the film’s tagline, a question: “How far would you go to protect a secret?”
The film delves into the question, when you are young, and have an innocent love affair, what is the value of that love relationship, when realizing the person is accused/guilty of war crimes? How does that relationship continue?
Also, the profound idea of reading and literacy/creativity is a prevalent theme. Through literature, Schmitz accesses other worlds, new landscapes and opens up through the many stories and characters she absorbs.
The Reader, a truly haunting story, opens the viewer’s eyes as well, to a legacy “too overwhelming to comprehend, and to a landscape of a generation living in the shadow of modern history’s greatest crime, coming to terms with the unforgivable sins of its elders,” says Daldry.
The Reader releases in select theaters Dec. 10.