Kate Winslet stars in a powerfully emotional and provocative film drama
adapted from an international best seller written by German jurist and
author Bernhard Schlink in The Reader.
It is in Berlin a few years after the end of World War II. Fifteen-year-old Michael meets Hanna on a streetcar. She is twice his age, but they begin a clandestine affair: passionate liaisons that include her unusual request that he read to her.
Hanna disappears from his life after their summer-long relationship. Years later, Michael, now a law student at university, is in the gallery of a war crimes trial when he sees her again: on the dock as a defendant.
The young man is shocked to learn that this woman who was his first love had been a Nazi concentration camp guard sending countless prisoners to their deaths. As with so many of his generation, Michael must now try to understand how someone he loved so deeply could have committed acts so heinous.
Kate Winslet stars as Hanna. The five-time Oscar nominee says the Bernhard Schlink book on which the film is based was a valuable resource, but also presented her with a unique acting challenge.
"I remember thinking 'I really have nothing I can relate to at all," Winslet explains. "There is nothing of my own experience that I can put into this character at all; so let's just start right there and hope for the best.' It's a terrifying position to be in, especially when it is such an extraordinary book. The material is so rich and also it is a much-loved piece of German literature. It was an enormous pressure."
Complicating the task, Winslet adds, were the strong, often opposing, opinions the character evoked in readers and even among her cast and crew on The Reader.
"Everyone had an opinion about Hanna Schmitz. She meant something different for everybody and people were alarmingly vocal about that," Winslet says. "'Well, obviously she was a Nazi. Obviously she was in control of her actions.' The list goes on and I would sometimes think 'oh my God, that's not what I thought. Am I wrong? No, wait …hang on a second …I might not be wrong. Does it matter who is right or wrong?' All that mattered at the end of the day was that I made her my own and played the honesty of that."
The director is Stephen Daldry, whose previous films include the crowd-pleaser Billy Elliott and the acclaimed drama The Hours. Daldry says a key challenge for him on The Reader was to keep the audience interested in Winslet's character, even when what she does is unacceptable.
"I think the big question in the book is how is it possible to love your parents, your pastors, your teachers or, indeed in the circumstance used in the book, your lover who has been involved in such a terrible past, whether as a direct perpetrator or as a bystander? How is it possible to love?" Daldry explains. "We were trying to be very clear about the degrees of her moral illiteracy, whether it is the relationship with a minor or what she was engaged in in the [concentration] camps. We tried to keep her ambiguous, not totally understood or understandable; but obviously we were very concerned about how to calibrate the sympathy towards her without ever allowing her to get off the hook."
Winslet believes the film neither condemns nor condones the Hanna Schmitz character, which puts the viewer in the position of deciding.
"We didn't want to give answers," notes Winslet. "We only wanted to ask questions and have an audience walk away questioning everything and possibly questioning their own morals if, even for one split second, they felt any empathy for Hanna Schmitz. I knew it wasn't my job to try to make an audience sympathize with her or humanize her or warm her up. I had to make her a person. I had to make her real."
The Reader features Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael; young German actor David Kross plays the same character as a teenager. The screenplay is by acclaimed British playwright David Hare.