There's a secret in Stephen Daldry's The Reader that elicits a greater shock than its hero being a former guard at Auschwitz. Already the secret has offended some viewers who believe it somehow excuses Hanna Schmitz for following murderous orders during the Holocaust. • That's impossible. Neither can the obvious pangs of guilty shame Hanna feels — superbly emoted by Kate Winslet's silent-film expressionism — justify participation in such atrocities. The Reader doesn't forgive any more than Valkyrie forgets that nice Nazis were the exceptions. Of the two films, The Reader is the more fascinating historical revision.
Daldry and screenwriter David Hare — the team that made The Hours pass like days — crafted a provocative blend of Judgment at Nuremberg, Summer of '42 and Last Tango in Paris. Hanna's past doesn't catch up until long after she seduces a teenager named Michael Berg (impressive newcomer David Kross), scenes as emotionally naked as their bodies.
The enthusiastic trysts are marked by Hanna's distance. Like Paul in Last Tango, she doesn't want to know Michael except in the biblical sense; she calls him "Kid" rather than his name, which she reluctantly learns. Michael plays along, hopelessly in first love, content to read classic literature as their foreplay.
In flash-forwards we see Michael as an adult, played by Ralph Fiennes, grimly readying himself for something he dreads. Daldry and Hare play that card close to their vests until the right time to reveal the pivotal secret, making me exclaim "brilliant!" when it happened. We witness Hanna's conviction of war crimes as young Michael does, not believing the woman we've come to know is something else entirely. The secret brings that conflict full circle.
The Reader is so delicately devised that perhaps only Winslet's heartbreaking performance keeps it from dissolving into melodramatic mush. Her classification as supporting actress in a Golden Globes nomination and Oscar buzz is a farce; this is a lead performance in screen time and magnificence. Studios backing this film and her turn in Revolutionary Road agreed on the division to maximize her chances, shortchanging this role's heft.
Winslet is stronger here than in Revolutionary Road, creating a character arc over decades and drastically mixed emotion. Hanna can be easily disliked; her brusque demeanor even during passionate moments signals something darker than the exploitation of a teenager. But she also invites sympathy in scenes that gain meaning later, a breakdown listening to a church choir, a courtroom confession.
Does this mean that Hanna should be absolved of her crimes? No, but the alibi of "only following orders" is rarely expressed so convincingly in movies dealing with the Holocaust. Hanna's secret is the key to a life spent wrongly, unlocked erotically and tragically in one of 2008's best films.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.