The Reader (2008 film)

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The Reader
Reader ver2.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byStephen Daldry
Screenplay byDavid Hare
Based onDer Vorleser
by Bernhard Schlink
Produced by
Edited byClaire Simpson
Music byNico Muhly
Distributed by
Release dates
  • December 12, 2008 (2008-12-12) (United States)
  • February 26, 2009 (2009-02-26) (Germany)
Running time
124 minutes[1]
  • Germany[2]
  • United States
  • English
  • German
Budget$32 million[3]
Box office$108.9 million[3]

The Reader is a 2008 romantic drama film directed by Stephen Daldry and written by David Hare, based on the 1995 German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. It stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and David Kross. It was the last film for producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, both of whom died prior to its release. Production began in Germany in September 2007, and the film opened in limited release on December 10, 2008.

The film tells the story of Michael Berg, a German lawyer who, as a 15-year-old in 1958, has a sexual relationship with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. She disappears only to resurface years later as one of the defendants in a war crimes trial stemming from her actions as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp. Michael realizes that Hanna is keeping a personal secret she believes is worse than her Nazi past – a secret which, if revealed, could help her at the trial. Some historians criticised the film for making Schmitz an object of the audience's sympathy and accused the filmmakers of Holocaust revisionism.[4]

Although it received mixed reviews, Winslet and Kross, who plays the young Michael, received acclaim for their performances; Winslet won a number of awards for her role, including the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film itself was nominated for several other major awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.


In 1995 Berlin, from his apartment Michael Berg watches a train pass by, and remembers a tram ride from 1958. In the flashback a 15-year-old Michael is feeling sick and gets off the tram to walk in the rain. Pausing beside an apartment building, he vomits. A 36 year old tram conductor named Hanna Schmitz finds him, cleans him up and helps him return home. Michael is diagnosed with scarlet fever.

When he is well, he visits Hanna with flowers to thank her. Hanna seduces him, and they begin an affair lasting one summer. She asks Michael to read to her from the books he is studying at school. On a bicycle trip, they visit a church with a choir singing and Hanna is emotional. Toward the end of summer, Hanna learns that she is promoted to a job in the tram's head offices. Hanna and Michael have a row. Hanna sends Michael away, packs her things and leaves. Michael finds the empty apartment and is devastated.

Back in 1995, we learn Michael is reserved around women, divorced, and estranged from his daughter.

In a flashback to 1966, Michael is at Heidelberg University Law School. As part of a special seminar, the students observe a trial (similar to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials) of several former SS guards accused of letting 300 Jewish women and children perish in a burning church during the death march evacuations of concentration camps near Krakow, Poland. Michael is horrified to see that Hanna is one of the defendants. The key evidence in the trial is the testimony of Ilana Mather and her mother Rose. Ilana tells the court Hanna had women from the camp read to her in the evenings. Rose tells the court that during the death march, a church they were sleeping in caught fire in a bombing raid, but the doors had been locked by the guards and so all but her and her daughter perished.

Hanna, unlike her co-defendants, admits that Auschwitz was an extermination camp and that she and the other defendants chose 10 women for each month's Selektion When questioned on the church fire, none of the defendants would answer why they had not unlocked the doors. The report by the guards on the church fire said they did not know about the fire until morning. Hanna admitted they had known, and says they could not have opened the doors lest the prisoners escaped. Hanna's co-defendants then all lie that Hanna was in charge, the leader of the group, and that she wrote the report. Hanna denies this and insists that all the guards present agreed on the contents of the report. The lead Judge asks for a handwriting sample, but to avoid the handwriting test Hanna testifies she wrote the report. In the public gallery watching the trial, Michael realizes Hanna's secret: she is illiterate, and so she could not have read or written the report.

After, Michael tells his law professor, who tells him he has a moral obligation to inform the court, and asks if he has talked to Hanna. When Michael says no, the Professor replies if Michael's generation has learnt nothing from his then "what is the point of anything". Michael goes to visit Hanna in prison, but finds he cannot face her, and turns away, leaving her waiting. Hanna receives a life sentence for murder in 300 cases, while the other defendants are sentenced to four years and three months each for jointly aiding and abetting murder in 300 cases. Michael weeps from the public gallery.

Some years later, while retrieving his books from his childhood home, Michael begins making tapes of himself reading out loud the books he had read to Hanna, and sends the tapes to her. Hanna borrows books from the prison library and teaches herself to read and write by following along with Michael's tapes. She starts writing back to Michael, first in brief, childlike notes, and as time goes by, with improving literacy. Michael never writes back.

In 1988, a prison official telephones Michael to seek his help with Hanna's transition into society following her upcoming release. He at first says no, but then visits Hanna and say he has found her a place to live and a job. Hanna is pleased to see him and tries to rekindle a friendship but Michael is distant. He asks if she thinks about the past and Hanna asks if he means their past, he says no, he means her wartime past, to which she replies "It doesn't matter what I feel and it doesn't matter what I think. The dead are still dead." Both are left upset by the meeting.

On the day of Hanna's release, Michael arrives at the prison with flowers, but is told Hanna has hanged herself, and left a will of sorts gifting a tea tin with cash inside and the money in her bank account, to Ilana.

Michael travels to New York City, to meet Ilana. He admits his relationship with Hanna, and its long-lasting impact. He tells Ilana about Hanna's illiteracy. Ilana tells Michael to seek catharsis or solace elsewhere. Michael tells Ilana about the money left to her, and shows her the tea tin, but Ilana refuses the money. Michael suggests that it be donated to a Jewish organization encouraging literacy, and in Hanna's name, and Ilana agrees he should send the money himself, in Hanna's name if he wishes. She claims the tea tin, as similar to one she had when sent to Auschwitz.

The film ends in 1995 with Michael driving his daughter Julia to Hanna's grave, and telling her their story.



In April 1998 Miramax Films acquired the rights to the novel The Reader,[5] and principal photography began in September 2007 immediately after Stephen Daldry was signed to direct the film adaptation and Fiennes was cast in a lead role.[6][7] Winslet was originally cast as Hanna, but scheduling difficulties with Revolutionary Road led her to leave the film and Nicole Kidman was cast as her replacement.[8] In January 2008, Kidman left the project, citing her recent pregnancy as the primary reason. She had not filmed any scenes yet, so the studio was able to recast Winslet without affecting the production schedule.[9]

Filming took place in Berlin, Görlitz, on the Kirnitzschtal tramway near Bad Schandau, and finished in the MMC Studios Köln in Cologne on July 14.[10] Filmmakers received $718,752 from Germany's Federal Film Board.[11] Overall, the studio received $4.1 million from Germany's regional and federal subsidiaries.[12][13]

Schlink insisted the film be shot in English rather than German, as it posed questions about living in a post-genocide society that went beyond mid-century Germany. Daldry and Hare toured locations from the novel with Schlink, viewed documentaries about that period in German history, and read books and articles about women who had served as SS guards in the camps. Hare, who rejected using a voiceover narration to render the long internal monologues in the novel, also changed the ending so that Michael starts to tell the story of Hanna and him to his daughter. "It's about literature as a powerful means of communication, and at other times as a substitute for communication", he explained.[8] The filming of sex scenes with Kross and Winslet were delayed until Kross turned 18.[14]

The primary cast, all of whom were German besides Fiennes, Olin, and Winslet, decided to emulate Kross's accent since he had just learned English for the film.[8] Chris Menges replaced Roger Deakins as cinematographer. One of the film's producers, Scott Rudin, left the production over a dispute about the rushed editing process to ensure a 2008 release date and had his name removed from the credit list. Rudin differed with Harvey Weinstein "because he didn't want to campaign for an Oscar along with Doubt and Revolutionary Road, which also stars Winslet."[15] Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award for The Reader. Marc Caro wrote, "Because Winslet couldn't get Best Actress nominations for both movies, the Weinstein Co. shifted her to supporting actress for The Reader as a courtesy ..." but that it is "... up to [the voters] to place the name in the category that they think is appropriate to the performance", resulting in her receiving more Best Actress nomination votes for this film than the Best Actress submission of her Revolutionary Road performance.[16] Winslet's head-to-head performances also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for Revolutionary Road and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader.

Entertainment Weekly reported that to "age Hanna from cool seductress to imprisoned war criminal, Winslet endured seven and a half hours of makeup and prosthetic prep each day."[17]

Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly writes that "Ralph Fiennes has perhaps the toughest job, playing the morose adult Michael – a version, we can assume, of the author. Fiennes masters the default demeanor of someone perpetually pained."[18]


On December 10, 2008 The Reader had a limited release at 8 theaters and grossed $168,051 at the domestic box office in its opening weekend. The film had its wide release on January 30, 2009 and grossed $2,380,376 at the domestic box office. The film's widest release was at 1,203 theaters on February 27, 2009, the weekend after the Oscar win for Kate Winslet.

In total, the film has grossed $34,194,407 at the domestic box office and $108,901,967 worldwide.[3] The film was released on DVD in the U.S. on April 14, 2009 and April 28 on Blu-ray.[19] Both versions were released in the UK on May 25, 2009.[20] In Germany two DVD versions (single disc and 2-disc special edition) and Blu-ray were released on September 4, 2009.[21]


Kate Winslet's performance garnered critical acclaim and earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress, the first of her career after five previous nominations.

Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 63% based on 204 reviews, with an average rating of 6.4/10. The site's consensus states, "Despite Kate Winslet's superb portrayal, The Reader suggests an emotionally distant, Oscar-baiting historical drama."[22] At Metacritic the film was assigned a weighted average score of 58 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[23]

Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post wrote, "This engrossing, graceful adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's semi-autobiographical novel has been adapted by screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry with equal parts simplicity and nuance, restraint and emotion. At the center of a skein of vexing ethical questions, Winslet delivers a tough, bravura performance as a woman whose past coincides with Germany's most cataclysmic and hauntingly unresolved era."[24]

Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote, "You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it's about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation."[2]

Patrick Goldstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The picture's biggest problem is that it simply doesn't capture the chilling intensity of its source material," and noted there was a "largely lackluster early reaction" to the film by most film critics. Most felt that while the novel portrayed Hanna's illiteracy as a metaphor for generational illiteracy about the Holocaust, the film failed to convey those thematic overtones.[25]

Ron Rosenbaum was critical of the film's fixation on Hanna's illiteracy, saying, "so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy – despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn't require reading skills – that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it's been declared "classic" and "profound") actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder ... Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you're guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it's not shown in the film."[26]

Kirk Honeycutt's review in The Hollywood Reporter was more generous, concluding the picture was a "well-told coming-of-age yarn" but "disturbing" for raising critical questions about complicity in the Holocaust.[27] He praised Winslet and Kross for providing "gutsy, intense performances", noted that Olin and Ganz turn in "memorable appearances", and noted that the cinematographers, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, lent the film a "fine professional polish".[27] Colm Andrew of the Manx Independent also rated the film highly and observed it had "countless opportunities to become overly sentimental or dramatic and resists every one of them, resulting in a film which by its conclusion, has you not knowing which quality to praise the most".[28]

At The Huffington Post, Thelma Adams found the relationship between Hanna and Michael, which she termed abusive, more disturbing than any of the historical questions in the movie: "Michael is a victim of abuse, and his abuser just happened to have been a luscious retired Auschwitz guard. You can call their tryst and its consequences a metaphor of two generations of Germans passing guilt from one to the next, but that doesn't explain why filmmakers Daldry and Hare luxuriated in the sex scenes – and why it's so tastefully done audiences won't see it for the child pornography it is."[29]

When asked to respond, Hare called it "the most ridiculous thing ... We went to great lengths to make sure that that's exactly what it didn't turn into. The book is much more erotic." Daldry added, "He's a young man who falls in love with an older woman who is complicated, difficult and controlling. That's the story."[30]

The film appeared on several critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2008. Rex Reed of The New York Observer named it the 2nd best film of 2008. Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter named it the 4th best film of 2008,[31] Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club named it the 8th best film of 2008,[31] and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times put it on his unranked top 20 list.[31]

Special praise went to Winslet's acting; she then swept the main prizes in the 2008/2009 award season, including the Golden Globe, the Critic's Choice Award, the Screen Actor's Guild Award, the BAFTA, and the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Several writers noted that her success seemed to have made real her appearance in the BBC comedy Extras, in which she played a fictionalized version of herself desperate to win an Academy Award. In the episode, Winslet decided to increase her chance of winning an Oscar by starring in a film about the Holocaust, noting that such films were often awarded Oscars.[32] However, in the fictional film, Winslet played a nun sheltering children from the Holocaust rather than one of its perpetrators. Winslet commented that the similarity "would be funny", but the connection didn't occur to her until "midway through shooting the film...this was never a Holocaust movie to me. That's part of the story and provides something of a backdrop, and sets the scene. But to me it was always an extraordinarily unconventional love story."[33]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Name Outcome
Academy Awards Best Picture Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, Redmond Morris and Donna Gigliotti Nominated
Best Director Stephen Daldry
Best Actress Kate Winslet Won
Best Adapted Screenplay David Hare Nominated
Best Cinematography Roger Deakins and Chris Menges
BAFTA Awards Best Actress Kate Winslet Won
Best Cinematography Roger Deakins and Chris Menges Nominated
Best Director Stephen Daldry
Best Film
Best Screenplay – Adapted David Hare
Broadcast Film Critics Association Top 10 Films of the Year Won
Best Film Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Kate Winslet Won
Best Young Performer David Kross Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Director – Motion Picture Stephen Daldry Nominated
Best Picture – Drama
Best Screenplay David Hare
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Kate Winslet Won
San Diego Film Critics Society Best Actress Kate Winslet Won
Satellite Awards Top 10 Films of 2008 Won
Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama Kate Winslet Nominated
Best Director Stephen Daldry
Best Film – Drama
Best Adapted Screenplay David Hare
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role Kate Winslet Won


  1. ^ "The Reader (15)". British Board of Film Classification. December 2, 2008. Retrieved June 17, 2013.
  2. ^ a b Dargis, Manohla (December 9, 2008). "Innocence Is Lost in Postwar Germany". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c "The Reader (2008)". Box Office Mojo. December 30, 2010. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  4. ^ Shipman, Tim (February 15, 2009). "Kate Winslet's Oscar chances hit by The Reader Nazi accusation". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on August 14, 2016. Retrieved November 8, 2017.
  5. ^ Roman, Monica (April 22, 1998). "Miramax books 'Reader'". Variety. Retrieved December 28, 2007.
  6. ^ Fleming, Michael (August 17, 2007). "Kidman, Fiennes book 'Reader' gig". Variety. Retrieved December 28, 2007.
  7. ^ Koehl, Christian (September 14, 2007). "Senator inks rights to 'Reader'". Variety. Retrieved December 28, 2007.
  8. ^ a b c Kaminer, Ariel (December 5, 2008). "Translating Love and the Unspeakable". The New York Times.
  9. ^ Meza, Ed; Michael Fleming (January 8, 2008). "Winslet replaces Kidman in 'Reader'". Variety. Retrieved January 10, 2008.
  10. ^ "Gestern letzter Dreh für 'Der Vorleser'". Sächsische Zeitung (in German). Archived from the original on July 17, 2020. Retrieved July 15, 2008.
  11. ^ Meza, Ed (October 26, 2007). "'Reader' receives German funds". Variety. Retrieved December 28, 2007.
  12. ^ Meza, Ed (January 8, 2008). "Nicole Kidman quits 'Reader'". Variety. Retrieved January 8, 2008.
  13. ^ "Zur Geschichte der Kirnitzschtalbahn ab 1989" [The history of the Kirnitzschtalbahn from 1989]. RVSOE (in German). Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  14. ^ Clarke, Cath (December 19, 2008). "First sight: David Kross". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
  15. ^ Thompson, Anne (October 9, 2008). "Scott Rudin leaves 'The Reader'". Variety. Retrieved February 7, 2009.
  16. ^ Caro, Mark (February 8, 2009). "How Kate Winslet outdid herself". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 6, 2012.
  17. ^ Labrecque, Jeff (January 30, 2009). "Best Actress". Entertainment Weekly 1032/1033: 45.
  18. ^ Schwarzbaum, Lisa (December 19, 2008). "Review: 'The Reader'". Entertainment Weekly. No. 1026. p. 43.
  19. ^ "The Reader (2008)". DVD Release Dates. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  20. ^ "The Reader (DVD)". Retrieved March 18, 2009.
  21. ^ "The Reader". Archived from the original on March 28, 2009. Retrieved March 31, 2009.
  22. ^ "The Reader". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 10, 2021.
  23. ^ The Reader Reviews. Metacritic. Retrieved March 10, 2021.
  24. ^ Hornaday, Ann (December 25, 2008). "'Reader' Lets Rending Story Speak for Itself". The Washington Post.
  25. ^ Goldstein, Patrick (December 3, 2008). "No Oscar glory for 'The Reader'?". Los Angeles Times.
  26. ^ Rosenbaum, Ron (September 2, 2009). "Don't Give an Oscar to The Reader". Slate.
  27. ^ a b |Honeycutt, Kirk (November 30, 2008). "Film Review: 'The Reader'". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on March 3, 2009. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  28. ^ Andrew, Colm. "Review: The Reader". Manx Independent. Archived from the original on August 2, 2012.
  29. ^ Adams, Thelma (December 2, 2008). "Reading Between the Lines in The Reader: When is Abuse Not Abuse?". Huff Post.
  30. ^ "Sex and the Younger Man". The New York Times. December 4, 2008. Archived from the original on February 28, 2009. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  31. ^ a b c "2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on January 2, 2009. Retrieved January 11, 2009.
  32. ^ Grabert, Jessica (January 30, 2012). "Extras' Best Episode: Kate Winslet". Cinema Blend. Retrieved December 7, 2014.
  33. ^ Rich, Katey (December 10, 2008). "Kate Winslet interview". Cinema Blend. Retrieved December 7, 2014.

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