“What we feel isn’t important. It’s utterly unimportant. The only question is what we do. If people like you don’t learn from what happened to people like me, then what the hell is the point of anything?”
So says Professor Rohl (Bruno Gantz) to a young law student named Michael Berg (David Kross) near the middle of The Reader. Yet it isn’t until much later, after Michael has become an adult (and is now played by Ralph Fiennes), after his wife and he have divorced, that he follows his professor’s advice, and begins telling his daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung) about his affair with Hanna Schmizt (Kate Winslet), and the greatest failing of his youth.
This affair is what begins the movie, as a series of flashbacks experienced by the adult Michael. When he was fifteen, he felt sick on a bus. A woman helps him get home after he vomits near an apartment complex. That woman is Hanna.
He is diagnosed with scarlet fever and spends weeks recovering. When he is well again, he brings flowers over to the complex, finds out where Hanna lives, and gives them to her as a thank you. While waiting outside her apartment as she undresses, he peeks through the door and sees her putting on her tights. She sees him watching her. He runs home.
The next time he is over, he brings up coal to her apartment in a couple of buckets. Having dirtied his face and clothes, she draws up a bath for him. When she drapes a towel over him, she lets it drop, and he discovers that she, too, is naked.
She spends time teaching him different sexual techniques. Then, one day, she asks him what he is reading in school. Soon, he is bringing over his school books to read to her before they make love. During Lady Chatterly’s Lover, she mentions that what he is reading is disgusting. When he stops, she asks, “What are you doing? Keep reading.”
Then, one day, she vanishes. Michael doesn’t meet her again until, as a law student, he attends a trial for S.S. guards. One of the defendants is Hanna.
Two main themes run through this movie, though at first, neither one is apparent. The first is learning from the past. The second is stated most eloquently by Roger Ebert, in his fantastic review of this film. In it, he writes: