A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this mature drama revolves around the sexual relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a much older woman. There are extensive sex scenes, full-frontal nudity, and a real, raw sense of sensuality throughout the first half of the film. The woman is later revealed to be an ex-Nazi prison guard on trial for her actions during the war; this involves extensive discussion of Nazi Germany's crimes against Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. There's also lots of talk about heavy, complex topics like complicity, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and responsibility. It's worth noting that even with the story's powerful undercurrent of eroticism, the Bernhard Schlink book it's based on is a staple of German high school class reading.
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What's the story?
Beginning in the mid-'90s, THE READER introduces successful lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) as he thinks back on the past and struggles with some heavy burden. The film then shifts to 1950s Germany, when young Michael (David Kross) meets and begins a passionate affair with the much older Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Their lovemaking is almost completely anonymous -- her only request is that he read to her before they make love, everything from classics to comic books. The affair ends, but years later, when Michael is in law school, he has the chance to observe the trial of a group of women who served as Nazi prison camp guards -- one of whom is Hannah. As the film flickers between the past and present, viewers learn how Michael reached out to Hannah in her imprisonment -- and what he could, and could not, forgive her for.
Is it any good?
The Reader is going to be a tough sell for audiences. It starts out focused on the erotic relationship between a 15-year-old and a woman twice his age before turning into a wordy, wrenching drama about guilt, shame, and responsibility. The film's central dramatic twist is also somewhat unsatisfying, and other films -- like Judgment at Nuremberg and The Night Porter -- have tackled the consequences of Naziism and the intertwining of sex and power in post-war Germany with much greater skill and vision.
At the same time, Winslet's performance is a marvel -- shifting from unsentimental sexuality to thawing affection to terrified guilt and beaten-down remorse throughout the film and spanning four decades in the portrait of a woman's life. If any one thing makes The Reader worth seeing, it's her work. Kross is also quite good as the young Michael, portraying both the callow joys and confidences of boyhood and the uncertain moral questions of the young man he grows to be. Director Stephen Daldry has previously adapted tough, serious literary works for the screen, and The Reader, like his earlier film The Hours, is perhaps a bit too polished and thoughtful when a bit more raw direct force would have made for a better film. (Fiennes, for example, is largely wasted -- a rarity in his body of work.) The Reader is a fine and admirable film, but the curious mix of white-hot sexuality and bitter-cold remorse makes for a curiously unsatisfying dramatic experience.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the controversy around the film's central relationship. Some commentators suggest that if the genders of the partners were reversed, their relationship would be seen as purely abusive and immoral. Do you agree?
What messages is the movie sending about sex and relationships?
Families can also discuss the film's central question: How can Germans put Nazi crimes and the Holocaust into perspective in the present?
How is this movie similar to and different from other movies that deal with those events/issues?