In the film adaptation of The Reader, Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmidt, a German woman who has a carnal summer fling with a teenager, Michael (David Kross), only to have the young man discover years later, as a law student, that she'd been an SS guard at Auschwitz.
Schmidt shares a first name (minus an "h") with German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, who famously coined the term "banality of evil" in suggesting that the Holocaust wasn't executed by fanatics or sociopaths so much as by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their government and thought they were just acting normally.
In The Reader, Winslet's Hanna becomes something of an embodiment of that concept. Though she takes on something of a paternal role in her affair with the teenager she dubs "Kid," there's always a distance to her. Watching from the gallery at Hanna's war crimes trial a decade later, Michael sees a woman with the emotional intelligence of a child, seeming not to comprehend the severity of her past actions or the charges against her.
The Reader follows the complex relationship between Michael and Hanna at different points between their 1958 fling and a present day (with Ralph Fiennes playing the adult Michael) set in 1995, with the 1966 war crimes trial at the center.
In part a reckoning with post-war German responsibility for the atrocities, The Reader is rather sharp in humanizing Hanna without manipulating the audience into sympathy for her. And Winslet, as is becoming common (see also Revolutionary Road later this month — or don't), is better than the movie she's in. Stephen Daldry's sturdy, unimaginative direction results in a high-toned, respectable, but somehow underachieving film, much like his 2002 Oscar bait The Hours.
Now playing, Ridgeway Four