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The Reader – A Review

To maintain the distinction between the sin and the sinner must be one of the most difficult teachings of Christianity. Our identities are so intimately related to what we do that to try and separate what we do from who we are just doesn’t feel right. And when we are trying to relate to others, it can be even more difficult. This difficulty is at the heart of Stephen Daldry’s movie The Reader.

Michael Berg (David Kross) is a young German teenager who becomes ill and is helped by Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslett) — a woman twice his age who lives alone. They strike up a friendship which very quickly evolves into an intense, sexually charged affair that lasts for a summer.

Years later, Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is studying law at university following World War II. As part of his course he is taken to a war crimes trial by his lecturer. He is shocked to see Hannah on trial.

As the trial unfold, Michael is thrown into intense conflicts as he tries to make meaning out of what he is observing. How does he come to terms with someone he loved being accused of involvement in the evil persecution of Jews through the Holocaust? Michael is confronted with difficult moral decisions as the trial progresses.

The Reader powerfully explores themes of human nature, guilt, identity, loyalty, love, and compassion.

Kate Winslett deservedly won an Oscar for her role as Hannah. She plays the young and older Hannah superbly. Apparently her makeup for old age took 7 hours to do! Fiennes is excellent as the tormented older Michael and Kross plays the demanding young Michael involving intense scenes of sexuality.

The nudity and sexuality in the first part of the film will be difficult for some people to watch. So you might want to reconsider watching this film if this material offends. But, in my view, the nature of the relationship between the young Michael and Hannah is essential because the sexual aspects of relationships represent the most intimate and powerful dimensions of human connection. This early relationship provides the counterpoint for Michael’s later reaction to discovering that someone he loved has acted in such an unimaginably evil way. Complicating all this is a range of ambiguities about Hannah’s involvement in the crimes with which she is charged that presents difficult choices for Michael.

The Reader is a provocative story that challenges us to think about how we relate to the ordinary human beings in our world that perpetrate great evil. How is it that people just like us end up at the point where they engage in evil? Is it possible to understand how this happens? And what are the long term effects of evil? And how should we relate to those who engage in these evils? The Reader won’t give you easy answers to these questions. But it will most certainly make you think about them.

Steve Parker reviews movies and books and comments on things of interest to Christians who are thoughtful about their faith on his blog, Thinking Christian, where this review was first published. He writes from Adelaide, Australia.

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