It has been translated into 45 different languages and has been included in the curricula of college-level courses in Holocaust literature and German language and German literature. It was adapted by David Hare into the film of the same name directed by Stephen Daldry ; the film was nominated for five Academy Awards , with Kate Winslet winning for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz.
Bernhard Schlink: 'The Reader'
The story is told in three parts by the main character, Michael Berg. Each part takes place in a different time period in the past. Part I begins in a West German city in After year-old Michael becomes ill on his way home, year-old tram conductor Hanna Schmitz notices him, cleans him up, and sees him safely home. He spends the next three months absent from school battling hepatitis.
He visits Hanna to thank her for her help and realizes he is attracted to her. Embarrassed after she catches him watching her getting dressed, he runs away, but he returns days later. After she asks him to retrieve coal from her cellar, he is covered in coal dust; she watches him bathe and seduces him.
He returns eagerly to her apartment on a regular basis, and they begin a heated affair. They develop a ritual of bathing and having sex, before which she frequently has him read aloud to her, especially classical literature, such as The Odyssey and Chekhov 's The Lady with the Dog. Both remain somewhat distant from each other emotionally, despite their physical closeness. Hanna is at times physically and verbally abusive to Michael. Months into the relationship, she suddenly leaves without a trace.
The distance between them had been growing as Michael had been spending more time with his school friends; he feels guilty and believes it was something he did that caused her departure.
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The memory of her taints all his other relationships with women. Six years later, while attending law school, Michael is part of a group of students observing a war crimes trial. A group of middle-aged women who had served as SS guards at a satellite of Auschwitz in occupied Poland are being tried for allowing Jewish women under their ostensible "protection" to die in a fire locked in a church that had been bombed during the evacuation of the camp.
The incident was chronicled in a book written by one of the few survivors, who emigrated to the United States after the war; she is the main prosecution witness at the trial. Michael is stunned to see that Hanna is one of the defendants, sending him on a roller coaster of complex emotions.
He feels guilty for having loved a remorseless criminal and at the same time is mystified at Hanna's willingness to accept full responsibility for supervising the other guards despite evidence proving otherwise. She is accused of writing the account of the fire.
At first she denies this, then in panic admits it in order not to have to provide a sample of her handwriting. Michael, horrified, realizes then that Hanna has a secret that she refuses to reveal at any cost—that she is illiterate.
This explains many of Hanna's actions: her refusal of the promotion that would have removed her from the responsibility of supervising these women and also the panic she carried her entire life over being discovered. During the trial, it transpires that she took in the weak, sickly women and had them read to her before they were sent to the gas chambers. Michael is uncertain if she wanted to make their last days bearable or if she sent them to their death so they would not reveal her secret.
She is convicted and sentenced to life in prison while the other women receive only minor sentences. After much deliberation, he chooses not to reveal her secret, which could have saved her from her life sentence, as their relationship was a forbidden one because he was a minor at the time. Years have passed, Michael is divorced and has a daughter from his failed marriage. He is trying to come to terms with his feelings for Hanna and begins taping readings of books and sending them to her without any correspondence while she is in prison.
Hanna begins to teach herself to read, and then write in a childlike way, by borrowing the books from the prison library and following the tapes along in the text. She writes to Michael, but he cannot bring himself to reply. After 18 years, Hanna is about to be released, so he agrees after hesitation to find her a place to stay and employment, visiting her in prison. On the day of her release in , she commits suicide and Michael is heartbroken.
Michael learns from the warden that she had been reading books by many prominent Holocaust survivors, such as Elie Wiesel , Primo Levi , Tadeusz Borowski , and histories of the camps. The warden, in her anger towards Michael for communicating with Hanna only by audio tapes, expresses Hanna's disappointment.
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Hanna left him an assignment: give all her money to the survivor of the church fire. While in the U. She can see his terrible conflict of emotions and he finally tells of his youthful relationship with Hanna. The unspoken damage she left to the people around her hangs in the air. He reveals his short, cold marriage, and his distant relationship with his daughter.
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The woman understands, but nonetheless refuses to take the savings Hanna had asked Michael to convey to her, saying, "Using it for something to do with the Holocaust would really seem like an absolution to me, and that is something I neither wish nor care to grant. Having had a caddy stolen from her when she was a child in the camp, the woman does take the old tea caddy in which Hanna had kept her money and mementos. Returning to Germany, and with a letter of thanks for the donation made in Hanna's name, Michael visits Hanna's grave after ten years for the first and only time.
Schlink's tone is sparse; he writes with an "icy clarity that simultaneously reveals and conceals," as Ruth Franklin puts it,  a style exemplified by the bluntness of chapter openings at key turns in the plot, such as the first sentence of chapter seven: "The next night I fell in love with her. Lillian Kremer, and the short chapters and streamlined plot recall detective novels and increase the realism.
But while he would like it to be as simple as that, his experience with Hanna complicates matters:. I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again.
I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both. Hanna and Michael's asymmetrical relationship enacts, in microcosm, the pas de deux of older and younger Germans in the postwar years: Michael concludes that "the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate.
The driver who picks him up is an older man who questions him closely about what he believes motivated those who carried out the killings, then offers an answer of his own:. An executioner is not under orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening or attacking them.
They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.
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After the man tells an anecdote about a photograph of Jews being shot in Russia, one that he supposedly saw, but which showed an unusual level of insight into what a Nazi officer might have been thinking, Michael suspects him of being that officer and confronts him. The man stops the car and asks him to leave. Germany had the highest literacy rate in Europe; Franklin suggests that Hanna's illiteracy represented the ignorance that allowed ordinary people to commit atrocities.
The Reader abounds with references to representations of the Holocaust, both external and internal to Michael's narrative, some real and some invented by Schlink. Of the latter, the most important is the book by the death-march survivor that constitutes the basis of the case against Hanna. It is summarized at some length and even briefly quoted, although its title is never given. Michael must read it in English since its German translation has not yet been published: " It was an unfamiliar and laborious exercise at the time.
And as always, the alien language, unmastered and struggled over, created a strange concatenation of distance and immediacy. He cannot muster up the empathy to "make the experience part of his internal life," according to Froma Zeitlin. She tells Michael:. I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that.
Michael Ralph Fiennes , meanwhile, marries, has a daughter, and divorces. Retrieving his books from the time of his and Hanna's affair, he begins reading them into a tape recorder, which he then sends to Hanna. Eventually, she begins borrowing 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, her letters reflect her gradually improving literacy.