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.
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.
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."
the task, Winslet adds, were the strong, often opposing, opinions the
character evoked in readers and even among her cast and crew on The
"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.
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.