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"The Reader" and moral ambiguity

Posted at 8:52 AM on December 24, 2008 by Euan Kerr

One of my colleagues who read Bernhard Schlink's novel "The Reader" described the first half of the book as a banal story which takes on increasingly troubling shades as it progresses.

The film is far from banal, but its strength lies in its exploration of the banality of evil. "The Reader" explores the relationship between Hanna (Kate Winslet) and Michael (played by David Kross as a young man, then Ralph Fiennes when Michael reaches middle age.) We first meet Michael as a 15 year old who through a chance encounter meets the much older Hanna and they begin a torrid affair.

Initially their relationship is all about the physical, but Michael wants to know more about this woman. She reveals little, but she does let him know she loves to hear him reading. So they pass the summer reading literary classics and making love.

Then one day Hanna just disappears, leaving Michael bereft and confused. She has left for a reason which he doesn't know, and even if he did, he probably couldn't comprehend.

It is only years later as a law student when he attends the trial of women accused of atrocities while working as SS guards during the war that Michael finds Hanna again, and begins to realize she has a number of secrets for which she will face a life of punishment. Yet it is only Michael who realizes her deepest shame, and only he sees how this has changed her life.

His response further changes both their lives.

The story reveals layer upon layer of cause and effect, crime and punishment, creating a web of moral ambiguity which challenges and enervates.

Kate Winslet portrays Hanna as a woman who has formed a carapace of anger and fear around herself, yet is still immensely vulnerable on the inside.

Kross and Feinnes create a character who also builds a protective shell, even though he realizes it is blocking out everyone he has ever loved. Michael has been victimized, sexually abused by an older woman, but it is he who is left with the questions about whether he has become a victimizer in the end.

"The Reader" is not a happy story, but it is very human.

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