The seduction of a teenage boy by a woman in her thirties is often seen as a teenage fantasy rather than sexual abuse. That a young man can be deeply damaged by such a relationship is increasingly confirmed by both professional and popular wisdom. This truth is supported by Stephen Daldry's film "The Reader."
Based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink and adapted for the screen by David Hare, "The Reader" covers three decades in Michael Berg's life. Played by David Kross as a teenager and Ralph Fiennes as an adult, Michael's life takes a dreadful turn when he is fifteen years old. Having come down with strep throat and taking refuge from a rain storm in an apartment entrance, he is befriended by Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). A lonely and reclusive woman at least 25 years Michael's elder, Hanna welcomes his teenage lust and begins an affair with him. Although their relationship lasts only a few months, Michael is fatally afflicted by her haunted and immoral soul.
However, it is not only sexual desire that motivates her, for Hanna cannot read. Her illiteracy drives her to get others to read for her. Michael doesn't realize that he is only one of a long list of people she has used for this purpose. The first were young Jewish prisoners she brought to her quarters when she was an SS guard of the Nazi death camps. This use of others for her own needs reveals an emptiness and inability to care for others that is a contagion Michael's young soul cannot fight off. For the next three decades, he is inextricably bound to her and is unable to be open and loving toward his wife and daughter.
Although sexual encounters at any age bond the two people together, when one is a child, the sexual experience is overpowering. Unable to protect himself, Michael remains powerless as he grows into adulthood. Keeping it all a secret, Michael is subsequently unable to get the help he needs to become empowered. This is a common consequence that makes this film a realistic study of where such immorality takes us. "The Reader" reads this truth so clearly that none of us can miss it. Although the acting is superb, the lack of spiritual and community values portrayed makes this a disturbing film.
1. The pride that Hanna protects when she will not admit that she is illiterate is also the pride that caused her to be unable to leave the prison. Have you ever experienced such an imprisoning pride?
2. The simplistic attempt to do a good job as an SS guard makes Hanna's confession all the more horrendous. What do you think you would have done if you had been Hanna?
3. If you had been Michael, would you have let the court know that she was illiterate and could not have written the report that brought her such a severe sentence?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.