In 1995 Germany, lawyer Michael Berg (Fiennes) meets his daughter Julia, who he hasn't seen for a while since he and her mother divorced. Before that, he recalls his sexual awakening as a teenager in 1958 when he began an affair with tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Their sexual liaison is highlighted by him reading literary classics to her, but the affair abruptly ends when she moves out of town.
In 1966, they meet again, with him as a law student and she as a defendant on trial for war crimes. It turns out that she was a prison guard for the SS, and was present with several other female guards when they let 300 Jewish women and children perish in a church fire. It also turns out that she hides something important about herself, a factor which would clear her of full responsibility for the incident. Will he help her get off?
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and won Kate Winslet a long-sought Best Actress award, but also suffered some Hype Backlash from people who did not share the movie's perceived sympathy for an SS death camp guard. One critic retitled The Reader as "Boohoo, I Bonked An Illiterate Nazi". There's also the issue of it being nominated for Best Picture over Wall E and The Dark Knight, both of which were more critically acclaimed than this one (this in particular may have spurred the Academy to expand the number of Best Picture nominees starting the following year).
The Reader features examples of:
- Age-Gap Romance: As a teenager, Michael has his first sexual experiences with Hanna, a woman in her thirties. Deconstructed, since he later admits that it was a borderline abusive relationship fueled more by hormones and didn't really help his psyche. Moreover, he's rightly shocked when he later finds out that she used to work at a concentration camp, which she kept hidden from him.
- All Germans Are Nazis: Averted as most of the characters are Germans born after World War II, and that generation's efforts to confront and come to terms with that past are a major theme of the novel and film.
- Armor-Piercing Question: Hanna and the judge have this exchange in court.Hanna: We couldn't keep everyone. There wasn't room.Judge: No, but what I'm saying: let me rephrase: to make room, you were picking women out and saying `You you and you have to be sent back to be killed.'Hanna: Well, what would you have done?
Dieter: Everyone knew. Our parents, our teachers. That isn't the question. The question is how could you let this happen. And better, why didn't you kill yourself when you found out.
- Dieter, Michael's classmate, lashes out to their professor about how the previous generations could let The Holocaust happen.
- Big Secret: Hanna's illiteracy, which she goes to great lengths to keep anyone else from finding out about.
- Broken Aesop:
- The film's take on Michael and Hanna's relationship is that it was borderline abusive and very wrong. Yet the scenes of the affair revel in Fanservicey shots of nude Kate Winslet, and the statutory rapist is presented as merely a complicated person, as opposed to a predatory adult taking advantage of a minor.
- Cannot Spit It Out: Michael knows that Hanna can't read, but he just sits on the information and lets her get a life sentence. In the book, he asks advice from his father who's a philosopher, and he says that Michael should respect Hanna's integrity, so if she doesn't reveal her illiteracy, neither should he.
- Deconstruction: Both the novel and film thoroughly deconstruct the sappy, feel-good “redemption” and “triumph of the human spirit” depiction of the Holocaust in literature and cinema. In one of the final scenes, Ilana pretty much shuts down any attempt Michael tries to invoke these tropes in regards to Hanna, bluntly telling him that sometimes there is just nothing to “learn” from other people’s unspeakable actions and the few Jews who survived the Holocaust don’t owe anyone redemption or absolution; that sentimental catharsis only exists in an artificial form within the theatre of the human psyche.
- Honor Before Reason: Hanna would rather go to prison than admit she’s illiterate.
- Just a Stupid Accent: In the movie, rather than speak German, the main characters all speak German-accented English; this was reportedly fine by Schlink as it allowed his story to reach a wider audience.
- Male Frontal Nudity: Young Michael in the film (all such scenes were filmed last so that his actor would have time to turn 18 and thus be legal to film naked).
- My God, What Have I Done?: Hanna sort of gets a gradual, internal one of these towards the end when she learns to read and comes to understand the horrors of the Holocaust—except it doesn't exactly work, because it implies that she also grew a conscience and developed an emotional maturity that she was previously lacking just by becoming literate.
- Nazisploitation: Film critic Mark Kermode points out this film is a high class Oscar Bait variation of this subgenre.
- Never Learned to Read: Hanna can't read. It's why she has Michael read things for her, under the guise of just enjoying being read to. She's so ashamed of her inability that she passes up job promotions and would rather go to prison than reveal it. There's a subtext that we're defined by our interaction with the written text, to the point that not being able to read means not existing. In the book, she's practically invisible to Michael's family and classmates.
- Never My Fault: During her trial, Hanna has an excuse after excuse when faced with the atrocities she committed while working as a Nazi Guard.
- Oscar Bait: In 2005, Winslet appeared in Ricky Gervais' Extras as an over-the-top version of herself, and claimed that she was only doing a (fictional) Holocaust movie for a long-overdue award. When she was set to win the Best Actress Oscar for this film, Gervais joked about her Extras appearance at that year's Golden Globes.
- Post-Historical Trauma: Michael and his fellow students can't remember the last war and the atrocities committed due to their young age. One of the law students lashes out at the professor about how they (their parents generation) could have let The Holocaust happen and do nothing about it.
- Pride: Hannah would rather take a life sentence than admit to the court that she cannot read.
- Shout-Out: In the film a character is reading the Tintin album The Seven Crystal Balls in bed, next to Kate Winslet.
- The Unfair Sex: It's subtle, but the story definitely relies on a major Double Standard involving the nature of evil. Despite her crimes Hanna is presented with a certain degree of sympathy; it's hard to imagine a male SS guard who committed wartime atrocities, escaped justice for more than 20 years afterwards, and engaged in a borderline-abusive relationship with an underaged girl being portrayed as anything other than a monster.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Michael vomiting in the doorway at Hanna's place leads to their encounter. Meet Cute inversed.