The Reader – Power of Idealism
Memory, loss and disillusionment are all part of a Power of Idealism Coming of Age Story. The Academy Award nominated film The Reader taps into the powerful resonance of this kind of story.
In the film, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) shows kindness to a much younger Michael Berg (David Kross). The two begin a passionate affair. Michael delights her by reading aloud and discussing the books assigned in his literature classes. One day, Hanna abruptly leaves– without a note or a goodbye. She simply vanishes from his life. Michael is devastated. Years later, when he is in law school observing a war crimes trial, Micheal finds her again. Hanna is a defendant. She is accused of being a Nazi guard who locked hundreds of Jews in a burning church.
Michael is horrified that the woman he loved could be involved in such brutal war crimes. He is also stunned to realize that she is illiterate. Hanna is accused of signing the order and writing the report on the Jews who died in the fire. She would rather be convicted (unjustly) than admit she doesn’t know how to read or write. Just as years earlier, she would rather disappear than turn down a job promotion at the tram company because of her illiteracy. Michael doesn’t tell the court the truth. Hanna is convicted and is sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Trying to come to terms with his feelings for Hanna, Michael begins taping his readings of books and sending them to her. She teaches herself to read and write by following along with the tapes. Michael refuses to see her or write to her, although she painstakingly writes to him. He does find her a flat when she is scheduled to be released but she commits suicide rather than be set free. On her own she had been reading accounts of Holocaust survivors and their stories.
Years later, Michael (Ralph Fiennes) still hasn’t recovered emotionally from the relationship. All these years he kept the shameful secret of his relationship with Hanna to himself. It poisoned all his other relationships. In classic Power of Idealism fashion, the memory of the past continues to exert tremendous power in the present. Youthful innocence is replaced by profound disillusionment about someone who was an icon of his youth. Only by revealing his secret relationship and resolving his loss is the Michael able to move on with his life.
In carrying out Hanna’s last request– that her money be given to the families of those who were killed in the fire– Michael also reconnects with his own daughter. He tells her the story of his relationship with Hanna. The awful sorrow that defined his life seems to lift. He is able to remember Hanna’s kindness to him lets go of the rest. He finally visits her grave and lays flowers there with his daughter. By conforming to this pattern of loss and understanding, The Reader speaks to the pain of Coming of Age in a universal way. It reminds us that forgiveness is necessary to a full, whole and complete adulthood.
Note: Not all films about young people are Power of Idealism Coming of Age Stories. Another universal pattern deals with the Life Lessons of the Power of Ambition character. In these films, a young person, usually someone new to the group, has the opportunity to join the “cool kids.” To do so he or she must conform to the external standards and superficial behavior that ensures success and popularity. Another group of less popular or “loser” kids offers real relationships, based on authenticity and genuine connection. The protagonist must choose. An iconic film about young people that follows this pattern is Mean Girls.