- Released Internationally on 10/12/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 04/02/09
In a nutshell
Michael Berg is a German teenager who in 1958 embarks on a passionate love affair with on older woman, Hanna Schmitz. The relationship ends abruptly, but they get back in touch with each other many years later, after he has followed a high-profile war crimes trial in which she is the defendant.
Not your average cradle-snatcher
Apart from the usual trysts, the relationship between these two seemingly-mismatched lovers also involves sessions of him reading to her from the books he is studying at school; something she seems to enjoy. He is eager to please, and therefore complies willingly. Later, whilst he is studying law and attending her trial without her knowledge, he discovers that her apparent fetish for being read to dates back to her days as an SS guard in the Nazi concentration camps. He also suddenly realises that she is hiding a secret that she is determined to keep safe, even if it costs her her freedom. As the only person who knows her enough to understand what is happening, he is torn between speaking up and keeping silent, and unsure about which one is the right thing to do.
A man shaped by his past
We first meet Michael Berg in 1995, when he is portrayed by Ralph Fiennes as a cold, unsentimental man who admits to having been deeply affected by his teenage affair. His failed marriage and superficial relationships, even with his own daughter, seem to stem from his ambiguous feelings for this older woman with a horrific past. How he acted at her trial continues to haunt him, and he eventually seeks redemption in trying to resume his reading relationship. The same character is also brought to life by an impressive young German actor, David Kross, who plays the difficult role of the 15-year old Berg caught up in his first sexual relationship, as well as the 23-year old Berg who attends her trial as a promising law student. Both actors complement each other wonderfully, and it is easy to see beyond them and understand this troubled man as one person.
A woman hiding secrets
Kate Winslet has received numerous accolades for her equally-impressive performance as Hanna. Sporting a German accent throughout, she discloses little during her early scenes as Berg’s unconventional but bossy lover, yet she seems as involved as he is. But after she disappears from his life without warning, her effect on him takes on an ominous tone as the trial uncovers her dark past during World War II. Reviled as a monster by everyone else, she still casts a shadow over Berg’s life, and eventually he turns out to be the only person she can claim as a friend. Winslet’s powerful performance also covers her later years, when we, just like Berg, are left uncertain about how to feel about her.
A crew-list of note
The film is directed by Stephen Daldry, who brought a smile to everyone’s face with Billy Elliot in 2000 and then shot up to the A-list with The Hours two years later. Amongst the film’s producers are the late Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, two great directors and producers who sadly passed away before they could see the film completed. David Hare, an established playwright, adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name, just as he had done so successfully with The Hours.
In the end
Starting off deceptively as a story about an unconventional love-affair, the films truly takes off in the second act, and ends as a thoughtful and important film about doing the right thing. A classy film, with excellent acting throughout.