Missed Connections: Age and Maturity in The Reader

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Essay on the adaption of the novel the reader by bernard schlink into film.

Submitted: September 26, 2011

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Submitted: September 26, 2011




Missed Connections: Age and Maturity in The Reader

The Reader, by Bernard Schlink, concerns the difficult topic of The Holocaust, a horrifying international event that concerns moral judgment and underlying moral imperatives. It was an instance in history that forced young people to grow up too soon, and forced older people to regress into childhood due to shock and abuse. This novel is a post-war love story of sorts that concerns these themes in a context out of the war. A young man is forced to grow up, due to a complex affair with a troubled woman who is stuck in her past and never truly becomes the woman she should have grown into years ago. The two themes that I focused on in the novel were the reversal of youth between characters and the concept of maturity. The recurring motif of honesty and dishonesty being portrayed through shame and guilt partake in these themes, and weave themselves through both works. The odd reversal of youth define reversal of youth takes place between Hanna Schmitz, an older, illiterate previous SS guard, and Michael Berg, the fifteen year old that becomes infatuated and maintains a summer-long affair with her. The film stuck to the script in terms of dialogue between characters, for the most part.

Michael Berg is the very essence of youth, a virginal fifteen year old brimming with hormones. Forced to mature in strange ways due to being bedridden with scarlet fever, he is alienated from the rest of his generation. We see glimpses of his illness in the movie, most explicitly in a tram that he must run off to continually vomit and suffer. The book dwelled much more on the illness and his experiencing youth second hand, and, then, expanding his imagination due to this lack of experience.  In the novel, we are plunged head first into the plot with a young Michael confronted with Hanna when he is doubled over in sickness after getting off the tram, and she tells him to come upstairs after seeing his suffering. In the movie, though, we enter the plot gradually with a brief introduction of his future life with his daughter.

Hanna is played by Kate Winslet, the best possible casting choice that Daldry could have made. Her looks were startlingly close to the woman described in the book: “a broad planed, strong, womanly face, with high cheekbones, pale blue eyes, full lips that formed a perfect curve without any indentation(12). Winslet managed to flawlessly combine the vulnerable emotionality and hidden child in Hanna versus the frozen and stoic SS guard who won’t let anyone into her inner world. Her voice was rough and soft at the exact points that it needed to be, and her abuse versus affection towards Michael was extremely effective. Enacting herself as an older woman, her mannerisms were on point, and she did an amazing job of acting as a sort of shell of herself which has matured but managed to maintain its mystery. The close-ups of her spoke more than the text in the novel depicted of her character. David Cross, who played the young Michael, depicted adolescent frustration very well (the frustration all teenagers go through, combined with these unusual circumstances of abuse and sexual awakening.) His innocence which transforms to horror transfers seamlessly to Ralph Fiennes’s role as an adult Michael who is worn and mature, who has experienced love and happiness once more through his daughter but still has the memory of suffering.

The building in the novel is described as heavy and wide, needing nearby buildings to “move aside and make room for it"(7) and foreshadows Hanna’s dominating personality. But instead of focusing on this in the film, we can see and hear construction, which is perhaps represents post-war construction introducing a more intrinsic theme, a comment on the superficial repair of something that cannot ever be separated from its memory. In a moment of adolescence, when he is upstairs in her apartment, her beauty mesmerizes him as she slowly pulls on a sheer stocking, but bolts as soon as she looks at him. As an excuse to see her again and to express gratitude, he brings flowers, as his mother instructed. Hanna’s regularity and devotion to routine is already seen as she commits to "slow, heavy regular footsteps"(22) in the novel, and he thinks it is a man coming up. This is not emphasized in the film adaptation. When dirtying himself after attempting to help her bring charcoal upstairs, he is instructed to bathe. We understand Hanna’s control over him as he obeys everything she says, and allows him to rub her down. They ultimately make love, and his youth is revealed in his fear that he won't please or satisfy her. The result of this interaction is asking to go back to school, which initially is due to the need to see her again, but signifies his excelling in literacy while Hanna stays behind.

The reversal of youth is quite an interesting juxtaposition between Michael and Hanna. Michael is the essence of youth, though mature for his age. He is brimming with adolescent nakedness and eagerness, both to learn, and to express his sexual turmoil with an older woman, who he believes he has fallen in love with. Yet this fantasy is not quite what it seems: it is not with an older woman who takes control due to maturity and experience in her life. Rather, it is with an ignorant woman who is illiterate. Literacy, after all, introduces one to complexity, intelligence, and prevents ignorance. She feeds his confidence due to her inexperience, by telling him in the film that he is good at reading aloud to her. He responds with, "I didn't think I was good at anything". He gains confidence this way, which is depicted as cockiness and superiority in the book, but appears to be strength and maturity in the eyes of the movie director.

Her illiteracy is presented in the form of physical ritual, sticking to wordless, prescribed routines that she can follow without encountering language. We see this in her career choice, as well: punching tickets (another form of routine.) When she learns Michael is a student, an added aspect to their routine of showering and making love, was reading. As Michael says in the novel, " we saw each other so regularly and our meeting always followed the same course"(41). This ritual is repeated in the text: "reading to her, showing to her, making love to her, and lying next to her for a while afterwards - that becomes the ritual in our meetings"(43) While she dominates the relationship, this reading gives him some control in their relationship, as it has the power to expose her vulnerability.

In the book, he assumes that she reads his names on the schoolbooks on his table, assuming she just hadn't paid attention. When he says he must "work like an idiot" (35) in order to get anywhere in school, she explodes in the novel, asking him what he thinks "selling and punching tickets is" (35). Here, her resentment and acknowledgement of her stunted intellectual growth, seeing him as the opportunity for education that she passed up previously in life, is expressed through shame. She makes him leave, ultimately. This scene is not present in the film. I think the director should have added it to her other abusive blow-ups in the film (such as her anger at him in a second trolley car, watching her work in the first). He entered the second car knowing that she worked in the first, as a sort of surprise to lift her mood. She took it negatively: her anger may have been a result of feeling mocked as he journeyed from school and she remained in an alienated car, of lower status, that he would not want to affiliate himself with. He is still young and cannot understand the complexity, of, as Schlink puts it, her “softness and her cruelty”. Here, we see her illiteracy and shame coming out of it lead to naive misunderstandings and unnecessary pain.

The innocence and youth of her immaturity, rather than the poisonous side, come out in a four-day bike trip that Michael suggests, which she agrees to. There are minor differences that were more effective, for me, in Daldry’s addition. While their usual ritual was one that was focused on in the vacation in the text, the film focuses more on their interactions with the outside world, emphasizing her shame as a social outcast. In the text, she blows up and strikes him when he leaves her a note in the morning telling her he has gone away shortly to bring her back breakfast. Thus, her dependence on routine is ruined by his well-intentioned surprise. On the trip, they go to a restaurant and sit outside to eat. The process of ordering is an ordeal for Hanna, and Michael does not realize this, asking her what she is getting. She quickly dismisses it, telling him to order whatever he wants, as it is nice not having to worry about things. This is another instance of ignorance masked as affection and trust. One addition that the film included was the presence of children. As she watches Michael order, she focuses on young children around them, who are fluently reading from their menus as well. This emphasizes her shame quite effectively. Another difference which stuck with me cinematically was Hanna wandering into a nearby church without Michael to watch children signing choir music. She is sobbing, and the expression in her face is entirely vulnerable. Michael walks in and witnesses this. In the text, it is depicted through: ”the Hanna who could cry was closer to me than the Hanna who was only strong”(57). This is another instance of a close-up in a film doing effectively what words cannot. This may signify multiple themes: the choir music is angelic, being words that do not have to be written or read, which she still derives pleasure from as an illiterate. It may also foreshadow later scenes during the SS trials in which we discover that the victims she was responsible for in the camp were mainly children, and the young girls that she chose to read to her. The crime she is ultimately help accountable for later is not letting 300 women and their children escape from a burning church, which is integral to this scene.

This is a minor inclusion of a score that is so effective in enhancing the emotionality of all the characters. Nico Muhly wrote all of the score, and I enjoyed one composer writing a score for each scene. The songs were named after each scene, and after watching the film, when listening to the piano score separately, the emotions I felt during each of those scenes returned, which I believe is the most effective thing a composer can accomplish when writing a score. The soundtrack appeared to be a seamless and cohesive collection that took the viewer, as well as the protagonists, on a journey. It reminded me of Philip Glass’s score for the film “The Hours”; haunting, emotional, and maintaining a sadness mixed with nostalgia that is hard to capture in words.

Throughout this affair, Michael still experiences youth second hand, even after getting over his illness. He gives up becoming a part of his generation: hanging out with his friends, dating girls his age, and having adolescent fun. A particular character, Sophie, shows interest in him, but he repeatedly rejects her. Yet although he gives up his adolescence, he does not truly enjoy the time with Hanna. He is chained to and entrapped by her, through infatuation, so he must stay. Whenever her supposedly irrational bouts of anger come up, he continuously takes it upon himself to apologize and beg for forgiveness, but is "filled with resentment" (73) the entire time, forcing him to take on more maturity and responsibility. In the novel, Sophie confronts him during a rainstorm and asks if it is his illness that is keeping him from socializing. He doesn’t answer, but thinks: "Hanna as illness,"(76). He sees this as terrible, though this is probably the most accurate description of what Hanna is to his life. When one gives someone else only the space in his or her life that is convenient for him or her, the other person becomes objectified, and suffers to no end.

Ultimately, Hanna flees her job and the city, due to being offered a promotion that involved literacy. This running away is another instance of her stunted youth and immaturity, which prevents her from excelling in life, just as her horrifying work in the camps did. This is another type of familiar cycle, which she assumes will help her get by in every day life.  Michael puts blame on himself, now, which forces him to mature and carry the guilt that even an older person, when confronted with it, may not know how to cope. As John Mackinnon puts it in his article “Law and Tenderness in The Reader”, the nature of freedom and responsibility”(1) are ones Michael is forced to confront, though too young to fully understand them.  Their affair was short-lived but passionate. It may have been an instance of first love on his behalf, as a young boy, which may have helped him learn and mature as a man though he did suffer as well. On the other hand, Hanna never learns from her suffering, or the suffering she imposes on others. She simply finds other escapes from it, which entrap her in her small world even more.

 Over the large span of time that they do not see each other, Michael loses feelings for Hanna and claims he does not feel anything for her. The next time that they meet is at the trials held for those suspected to have committed crimes in the concentration camps, where Michael is a law student serving as a witness for the trials, while Hanna is help accountable for locking women in a church and not allowing them out as it burned.  In the book, he claims to still feel nothing, after seeing her: “I recognized her, but I felt nothing. Nothing at all.” (95). In the film, Michael stays silent when he sees her, but seems to be more emotionally affected than in Schlink’s novel. Schlink notes that even in the film, he is not entirely detached from her at this point. He “never fully stops loving her, though later he reduces communication drastically. But she still plays a role in his life, and he wants her to play a role. “This could be due to him being a participant in the numbness that Hanna brought upon him after such a push and pull between affection and abuse.

He understands her more at these trials; in one of the surviving victims writing, he comes to recognize the numbness that those in the camp experienced. Michael does not give sympathy to those who imposed the crime, but understands that both victim and perpetrator experience this numbness and immunity to emotion. When questioned, Hanna’s straightforward honesty is present in the book and the novel, but the close-ups in the movie allow us to see her naivety and innocence when questioned like a criminal, confused over simply doing her job. Her straightforwardness is a result, as Schlink puts it in an interview with Oprah: “with a lack of moral awareness” in all of her life. She focuses on the efficiency of work as opposed to the complexity of human emotion; one learns to gain this empathy or sympathy through words and the experiences of other. Only in this trial does she even begin to understand, also mentioned by Mackinnon, the relationship between “law and emotion”, such as in the Holocaust.. Her illiteracy entraps her once more in the trial, when the rest of the suspects gang up on her, and decide she is the guilty one, using young girls reading to her as more evidence. Though she is still physically dominant and assertive in responses, she is still more vulnerable than any of the other women present, due to her secret. Ultimately, refusing to offer a handwriting sample, which would have saved her from being blamed for writing the report, she admits and is sentenced to life in prison. Before she admits, Michael’s moral dilemma in whether he should help her or not is more intricate in the novel than in the film. He has an extensive conversation with his father over morality, and the importance of speaking to a person directly rather than making a decision over their head. This is another instance of maturity that is toned down in the film, which could have been emphasized more to show the contrast between the maturing Michael and the regressing Hanna, who spread her illness and numbness to Michael.

She had a large effect on his future in the book, which focuses on his future relationships where everything “moved wrong and felt wrong, smelled wrong and tasted wrong” (173). This unhappiness was portrayed in the film, but the presence of his daughter in the novel provided more closure to the success of his life, and his ultimate freedom from Hanna. After being incarcerated, Michael maintains a platonic, wordless relationship with her by sending her tapes of him reading various books to her. There was nothing personal included in this tape, but the reaction in her facial expressions to his voice clearly gave her joy and pushed her to explore more literature, especially concerning the concentration camps.

Hanna is ultimately released, and Michael agrees to pick her up. They briefly meet before, and his emotions for her are truly gone, though the pain she put him through in the past may never be. He regards her overall demeanor as being an old person, which we can clearly see due to the very effective makeup applied to Kate Winslet.  In the novel, he asks her what she learned about the camps, to which she responds: “I learned how to read.” this could be interpreted in many different ways. It could mean that she learned nothing, or it could mean that she learned the intellectual and emotional complexity that literature opens one’s world up to understanding the world around them. Or, eventually, it may signify that one learns nothing from the suffering in the camps. In their brief interaction, the foreshadowing of her suicide is much more obvious than that in the novel. She hesitates when Michael says he will pick her up next week, and her complacent facial expression showed me her desire to soothe him and detract from her final decision to end her life. Later, we discover that she never packed, which makes this foreshadowing more concrete.

The portrayal of the suicide at the end is one that is not described in the book, and which I thought was an important addition to he film. It shows her unhappiness, and that she did learn something, though perhaps didn’t cope with it in the best way. As Winslet puts it in an interview, “after truly understanding and reading about what the holocaust was, she couldn’t live with it”. The close-up of her feet standing on books is one of the scenes that stuck most with me, in the film. Her feet are aged and swollen, and have gained weight. It is said that you can understand a person’s life and turmoil if you look at their hands, and the same goes for the scene with Hanna’s feet. The fact that she is standing on books is significant as well. What had brought her alive and made her more of a self-reliant human being while she was imprisoned, in a sad irony, lead to her demise. When Michael visits, before he finds out that she has killed herself, he brings flowers, which doesn’t occur in the book. This scene provides closure brings the viewer back to the first scene of Michael as a young boy bringing Hanna flowers as thanks for helping him in illness.

Another addition to the film that was not present in the novel was Michael bringing his daughter Julia to Hanna’s grave and telling her the entire story. This may be somewhat cathartic outlet for Michael, but it also establishes a relationship of honesty that he never had with Hanna, and serve as a redemption that finally puts an end to his suffering. He takes of the role of a responsible, honest adult, learning from Hanna’s mistakes, which is what will allow her to rest in peace.


© Copyright 2019 naima karp. All rights reserved.

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