It doesn't matter what I feel. It doesn't matter what I think. The dead are still dead.—Hanna Schmitz
In 1995 Germany, a lawyer named Michael Berg meets his daughter, Julia, who he hasn't seen for a while since he and her mother divorced. Before that, he recalls his sexual awakening as a teenager in 1958 when he began an affair with tram conductor Hanna Schmitz. Their sexual liaison is highlighted by him reading to her literary classics, but the affair abruptly ends when she moves out of town.
In 1966, they meet again, with him as a law student and she as a defendant on trial for war crimes. She, as it turns out, was a prison guard for the S.S., and was present with several other female guards when they let 300 Jewish women perish in a Church fire. It also turns out that she is illiterate, a factor which would clear her of full responsibility for the incident. Will he help her get off?
The Reader was nominated for several Oscars and won Kate Winslet a long-sought Best Actress award but also suffered some Hype Backlash from people who did not share the movie's perceived sympathy for an SS death camp guard. One critic retitled The Reader as "Boohoo, I Bonked An Illiterate Nazi".
- All Germans Are Nazis: Averted as most of the characters are Germans born after World War II, and that generation's efforts to confront and come to terms with that past are a major theme of the novel and film.
- Armor-Piercing Question: Hanna and the judge have this exchange in court.
Hanna: We couldn't keep everyone. There wasn't room.
Judge: No, but what I'm saying : let me rephrase : to make room, you were picking women out and saying 'You you and you have to be sent back to be killed.'
Hanna: Well, what would you have done?
- Big Secret: Hanna's illiteracy, which she goes to great lengths to keep anyone else from finding out about.
- Cannot Spit It Out: Michael knows that Hanna can't read, but he just sits on the information and lets her get a life sentence.
- Driven to Suicide: Hanna.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Our heroine is a Nazi death camp guard that sent Jews to their death.
- Just a Stupid Accent: In the movie, rather than speak German, the main characters all speak German-accented English; this was reportedly fine by Schlink as it allowed his story to reach a wider audience.
- May-December Romance
- My God, What Have I Done?: Hanna sort of gets a gradual, internal one of these towards the end when she learns to read and comes to understand the horrors of the Holocaust--except it doesn't exactly work, because it implies that she also grew a conscience and developed an emotional maturity that she was previously lacking just by becoming literate.
- Never Learned to Read: Comes off as a Warped Aesop. There's a subtext that we're defined by our interaction with the written text, to the point that not being able to read means not existing. In the book, she's practically invisible to Michael's family and classmates.
- Oscar Bait: In 2005, Winslet appeared in Ricky Gervais' Extras as an over-the-top version of herself, and claimed that she was only doing a (fictional) holocaust movie for a long-overdue award. When she won the Best Actress Oscar for this film, Gervais later joked about her Extras appearance at the next Golden Globes.
- Pride: Hannah would rather take a life sentence than admit to the court that she cannot read.
- The Unfair Sex: It's subtle, but the story definitely relies on a major Double Standard involving the nature of evil. Despite her crimes Hanna is presented with a certain degree of sympathy; it's hard to imagine a male SS guard who committed wartime atrocities, escaped justice for more than twenty years afterwards, and engaged in a borderline-abusive relationship with an underaged girl being portrayed as anything other than a Complete Monster.
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic: Hanna's inability to read is a rather transparent metaphor for the inability of her generation to see the evil of the Nazis at the time it was occurring; not incidentally, it's by learning to read that she becomes fully aware of the enormity of the Holocaust.