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The Reader (2008) - Plot Summary Poster

(2008)

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Summaries

  • Post-WWII Germany: Nearly a decade after his affair with an older woman came to a mysterious end, law student Michael Berg re-encounters his former lover as she defends herself in a war-crime trial.

  • THE READER opens in post-war Germany when teenager Michael Berg becomes ill and is helped home by Hanna, a stranger twice his age. Michael recovers from scarlet fever and seeks out Hanna to thank her. The two are quickly drawn into a passionate but secretive affair. Michael discovers that Hanna loves being read to and their physical relationship deepens. Hanna is enthralled as Michael reads to her from "The Odyssey," "Huck Finn" and "The Lady with the Little Dog." Despite their intense bond, Hanna mysteriously disappears one day and Michael is left confused and heartbroken. Eight years later, while Michael is a law student observing the Nazi war crime trials, he is stunned to find Hanna back in his life - this time as a defendant in the courtroom. As Hanna's past is revealed, Michael uncovers a deep secret that will impact both of their lives. THE READER is a story about truth and reconciliation, about how one generation comes to terms with the crimes of another.

  • In 1995, a German man reminisces about a relationship he had, as a teenager, in 1958 with an older woman. He also remembers what happened subsequent to that, including her standing trial for war crimes committed during World War 2, and the secret which denied her justice.

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  • On a rainy day in late-1950s Neustadt in West Germany, a shivering 15-year-old tram passenger, Michael Berg, chances upon the stern tram conductor and a woman six years more than twice his age, Hanna Schmitz. A few months later, a fragrant bouquet of flowers and an inadvertent glimpse of Hanna's silken undergarments will prepare the ground for an unexpected and passionate summer-long love affair, accompanied by the life-changing ritual of having Michael narrate the classics to her. However, as their secret liaison mysteriously ends, the clandestine couple will meet again many years later, in 1966, when a now law student Michael sees a grizzled Hanna again, along with a group of Nazi SS prison guards while attending a war crimes trial. But, how can this be true, and above all, how can Michael come to terms with a dark past and an entire country's shame and guilt?

  • Middle aged German barrister Michael Berg recollects to himself his lifelong acquaintance with Hanna Schmitz, a relationship with whom he never disclosed to anyone close to him. Michael first met Hanna in 1958, when he was fifteen, she thirty-six. The two had a turbulent summer long love affair, dictated by Hanna that their encounters would begin with him reading to her followed by lovemaking. Michael next encountered Hanna in 1966, when Michael, now a law student, attended the Nazi war crimes trial of six female former S.S. concentration camp guards, one of whom is Hanna. Through listening to the testimony, Michael comes to the realization that he is in possession of information which could save Hanna from a life in prison, information which she herself is unwilling to disclose. In deciding what to do, Michael is torn between his differing views of justice.

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Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • The movie begins in 1995 Berlin, where a well-dressed man named Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is preparing breakfast for a young brunette woman named Brigitte (Jeanette Hain) whom has stayed the night with him. The two part awkwardly, and as Michael watches a Berlin S-Bahn pass by outside....

    The film flashes back to another tram in early 1958 Neustadt, West Germany during a rainy winter day. An unhappy-looking teenage Michael (David Kross) gets off but wanders around the streets afterwards, finally pausing in the entryway of a nearby apartment building where he starts to vomit. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), the tram conductor, comes in and assists him in returning home.

    Michael is diagnosed with scarlet fever and must rest at home for the next three months. All Michael can do is examine his stamps and bide his time.

    After he recovers as the spring season arrives, he returns to the apartment building to deliver a bouquet of flowers to Hanna at her apartment and thanks her. She is matter of fact with him but asks him to escort her to work on the tram line. However, when she catches him spying on her as she dresses, he runs away in shame. When he returns to apologize a few days later, she seduces him. He persuades her to tell him her name -- Hanna. Michael returns to her every day after school, rejecting the clear interest of girls his own age. The two begin an sordid affair that lasts through that spring and the summer when he is off from school. Their liaisons, all at her apartment, are characterized by her asking him to read literary works he is studying in school, such as ''The Odyssey'', "The Lady with the Dog" and ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn''. He sells his stamp collection so they can go on a bicycling tour in the countryside. When Hanna is promoted by the tram company to a better paying position and an office job, she becomes unsettled. When Michael arrives at her apartment for one of their trysts, she suddenly snaps at him when he tries to read her Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog." They make love one last time and she then moves away without telling him where she is going. Michael is heartbroken.

    Eight years later in 1966, Michael is now age 23 and attends Heidelberg Law School. As part of a special seminar taught by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz), a concentration camp survivor, he observes a trial of several women who were accused of letting 300 Jewish women die in a burning church when they were SS guards on the Death marches following the 1944 evacuation of Auschwitz concentration camp. Michael is stunned to see that Hanna is one of the defendants. He visits a former camp himself to try to come to terms with this. The trial divides the seminar, with one student angrily saying there is nothing to be learned from it other than that evil acts occurred. He tells Rohl that the older generation of Germans should kill themselves for their failure to act then and now to stop the Holocaust.

    The key evidence is the testimony of Ilana Mather (Alexandra Maria Lara), a young Jewish woman who has written a memoir about how she and her mother (Lena Olin) survived. When Hanna testifies, unlike her fellow defendants, she admits that she was aware the whole time that Auschwitz was an extermination camp. She also admits that all the SS guards, herself included, would randomly choose ten prisoners each. These prisoners would then be executed to make way for the new prisoners that arrive so that overcrowding does not occur.

    In Hanna's case, she would choose the physically weak and less able-bodied prisoners to their deaths. She would also make the prisoners read to her; every evening Hanna would randomly choose one female prisoner to read a book to her in her office before taking them back to their cell, as she takes great enjoyment in being read to. Every prisoner that would read books to Hanna would be later killed.

    Further charges against Hanna whilst an SS guard also included 300 counts of murder brought about when an aerial bombing raid by the allied forces accidentally hit a church where the prisoners where sleeping for the night. The church's roof collapsed and a fire ensued. The prisoners tried to escape the burning church however all exits were locked. The SS guards, Hanna included had the power to unlock the exits to let the prisoners escape, but they did not. Only two prisoners survived, (Ilana Mather and her mother).

    Hanna strongly denies that she personally authorized a report to lock the church exit doors preventing the prisoners to escape, despite pressure from the other defendants. When the prosecutor produces a document with Hanna's signature on it authorizing the church incident, she continues to deny the charges by claiming that someone forged her signature. However, when she is asked to provide a handwritten sample of her signature to compare it to the signature on the document, Hanna suddenly retracts her denials and admits to signing the document.

    In the courtroom audience, Michael then realizes Hanna's secret: she is illiterate and has made many of her life choices to conceal that. Even her choice to join the SS was made because of her desire to avoid a job promotion meaning she would have had to reveal her illiteracy. Without being specific, Michael informs Rohl that he has information favorable to one of the defendants but is not sure what to do since the defendant herself wants to avoid disclosing this. Rohl tells him that if he has learned nothing from the past there is no point in having the seminar.

    Hanna receives a life sentence for her role in the church deaths while the other defendants get prison terms of a few years. Michael soon graduates from the law school and gradually becomes a successful lawyer. He marries a young woman, named Marthe (Karoline Herfurth), and together they have a daughter whom they name Julia. But Michael remains emotionally withdrawn. His marriage ends a few years later when Marthe leaves him, and he becomes distant from his daughter. Rediscovering his books and notes from the time of his affair with Hanna, he re-establishes contact with her by reading some of those works into a tape recorder. He sends the cassettes and another tape recorder to her in prison. Eventually she uses these to teach herself to read the books themselves from the prison library, and eventually writes back to him.

    Michael does not write back or visit, but keeps sending audio tapes. In 1988, the prison's warden writes to him to seek his help in arranging for the aged Hanna after her forthcoming release on parole. He reluctantly agrees to sponsor Hanna. He finds an apartment and job for her but when he visits her for the first time, one week before she is to be released, he is aloof to her. She tells him that before the trial, she never thought about what she did as a SS guard, but thinks about nothing else now. After he leaves, she commits suicide by hanging herself in her cell and leaves a note to Michael and a tea tin with cash in it. In her will, she asks Michael to give her life's savings to the family of one of the prisoners at Auschwitz.

    Later, Michael travels to New York. He meets Ilana (Lena Olin in a dual role) and confesses his past relationship with Hanna to her. He tells her that Hanna was illiterate for most of her life but that her suicide note told him to give both the cash, some money she had in a bank account and the tea tin to Ilana. After telling Michael there is nothing to be learned from the camps and that he should go to the theater if he is seeking catharsis. Michael suggests that he donate the money to an organization that combats adult illiteracy, preferably a Jewish one, and she agrees. Ilana keeps the tea tin since it is similar to one she herself had owned before being sent to the camps, where it was taken from her to be melted down.

    In the present day of 1995, Michael reunites with his daughter, Julia (Hannah Herzsprung), now age 21, who has just returned from a year in Paris. He admits his failings as a father and drives her to a church that he and Hanna had visited during their bicycle tour nearly 40 years earlier. He shows her Hanna's grave and begins to tell her his and Hanna's story.

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