The art of making films is all about the director having a vision about how to best tell the story and having actors who can portray the requisite emotions while staying true to the character. There are few actresses (especially of her generation) who have the talent and range to be able to do this with her eyes closed (or seemingly effortlessly) like Kate Winslet and director Stephen Daldry has already demonstrated his ample skill with films like “Billy Elliott” and “The Hours”. It also doesn’t hurt to have writer David Hare (“Damage” and “Plenty”) on board to adapt the beautifully written best-selling novel by German author, Bernhard Schlink.
It is post World War II Germany and 15-year-old high school student Michael Berg (David Kross) gets off the tram feeling quite ill. He has to duck into the entranceway of an apartment building as he is overcome with nausea. One of the building’s residents, a woman, helps him clean up and later walks him home. Michael finds out that he has scarlet fever and must remain in bed for three months.
Once he has recovered enough to get out of bed Michael brings a bouquet of flowers to the woman to thank her. We find out her name is Hanna (Kate Winslet) and slowly these two, despite their 20-odd year age difference, fall into a highly sexual and passionate affair. For obvious reasons they keep their relationship a secret.
Michael is obsessed with Hanna, but she is more standoffish. He discovers that Hanna loves for him to read to her. So he begins to read many different classic novels to her like Homer’s “The Odyssey”, Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Anton Chekov’s “The Lady and the Little Dog”. Despite their strong bond Michael is distraught when Hanna just up and disappears one day. His heart is broken.
Dial forward several years and Michael is in law school. His seminar class professor (Bruno Ganz) takes them to the trial of several German women who stand accused of being guards at Nazi concentration camps. Michael is shocked to find out that Hanna is one of the women accused.
There is so much stuff going on in this film that it is hard to wrap your head around it at times. The film has elements of truth and forgiveness mixed up with how Germany dealt with the aftereffects of World War II. Heavy stuff. We jump back and forth between Germany in 1995 to 1958 to 1966 and then on to 1988. You have to pay attention and keep track. It is a hard film, but a wonderful one.
Kate Winslet is a wonder in the film. She plays the character of Hanna Schmitz from age 36 until 66. On screen she manages to render what should be a despicable character for many reasons someone you feel sorry for. No small feat. You are conflicted throughout. Only Winslet’s incredible talent allows for these feelings. She inhabits the character from expressions to accent to wardrobe to body language. The young David Kross also is a standout with his ability to take his character from innocence to bitterness very believably.
Moral dilemma after moral dilemma assaults you for two hours. We think about the individual, how what is right and wrong during times of war are different than at times of peace, forgiveness, passion at any age, shame, and a ton of other things. You are exhausted and a wreck afterwards. The film is sexually charged and heartbreaking. This one will stay with me for a good while.
-Adapting a Timeless Masterpiece
-A Conversation with David Kross and Stephen Daldry
-The Art of Aging Hanna Schmitz
-Coming to Grips with the Past