THE READER opens in post-WWII Germany when teenager Michael Berg becomes ill and is helped home by Hanna, a stranger twice his age. Michael recovers from scarlet fever and seeks out Hanna to thank her. The two are quickly drawn into a passionate but secretive affair.
Michael discovers that Hanna loves being read to and their physical relationship deepens. Hanna is enthralled as Michael reads to her from "The Odyssey," "Huck Finn" and "The Lady with the Little Dog." Despite their intense bond, Hanna mysteriously disappears one day and Michael is left confused and heartbroken.
Eight years later, while Michael is a law student observing the Nazi war crime trials, he is stunned to find Hanna back in his life - this time as a defendant in the courtroom. As Hanna's past is revealed, Michael uncovers a deep secret that will impact both of their lives. THE READER is a haunting story about truth and reconciliation, about how one generation comes to terms with the crimes of another.
THE READER stars Ralph Fiennes, David Kross and Kate Winslet, and is directed by Stephen Daldry (the Academy Award nominated director of THE HOURS), from a script by David Hare, and based on the award winning novel by Bernhard Schlink. Schlink's The Reader has been translated into 40 languages and was the first German novel to reach number one on The New York Times Bestseller List.
About the Production
How do you live in the shadow of modern history's greatest crime? Can a generation come to terms with the unforgivable sins of its elders? Or are some legacies too overwhelming to comprehend, too evil to accept, too terrible to ever recover from?
THE READER tells the story of Michael Berg, a boy growing up in post-war Germany whose earnest, early stirrings of love involve a mysterious older woman hiding a shameful past, along with another deeply personal secret. As curiosity gives way to uneasy guilt experienced by those who came of age after the Holocaust, director Stephen Daldry believes that, ultimately, "this is a film about truth and reconciliation."
From Book to Film
The compelling story of THE READER in many ways touches on the deeply transformative power of words and literacy. So it seems fitting that the film originated with a lyrically simple, yet emotionally jarring, book--"a formally beautiful, disturbing and, finally, morally devastating novel," according to the Los Angeles Times.
Written by Berlin law professor and mystery novelist Bernhard Schlink, the semi-autobiographical work was published in 1995, later translated into 40 other languages, and became the first German novel to top the New York Times' bestseller list, garnering widespread attention in 1999 after Oprah Winfrey chose the title for her popular book club. "Who would have guessed that a book only 218 pages long could stir up so many emotions?" asked Winfrey, who noted that more men read the novel than any of her other book club selections before it was discussed on her program.
"It's a story about what we call 'the second generation,'" says Schlink, describing "the lucky late-born" children of the post-war years. "We grew up in a very naïve way until, at some point, we realized just what our parents and pastors and teachers had done. When you love someone who has been engaged in something awful, it can entangle you." In Germany, the movement towards comprehending the war even required its own psychological term--vergangenheitsbewältigung, meaning "the struggle to come to terms with the past." The novel is considered so important to understanding the country's history that it has even been used as a textbook in German schools.
Film rights to The Reader were acquired by Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Films in 1996. At Weinstein's urging Anthony Minghella and his production partner Sydney Pollack became involved, with Minghella intending to both pen the screenplay and direct. But stage dramatist Sir David Hare, later to become an Academy Award nominee for his screenwriting work on THE HOURS, also read the Schlink book and yearned to adapt it. Since Minghella had just swept the Academy Awards with THE ENGLISH PATIENT and was mulling over several more epic projects, Hare tried to cajole him into handing over writing chores on THE READER, but Minghella remained determined to develop the script himself.
Nearly a decade later, with no screenplay completed, Daldy--who studied German as a boy and had lived in Berlin--began asking Minghella about the possibility of directing THE READER. Realizing it would be some time before he himself could become so involved with the production, Minghella agreed to let Daldry direct, with the provisos that it become Daldry's next project, and that he and Pollack would stay on board as producers. As far as getting a screenplay, Daldry naturally thought of Hare. "We did THE HOURS, and so this is the second complicated and hugely ambitious film we've made together," says Hare. "We're very deeply bonded, much like people who have been to war together - we know each other's strengths and weaknesses."
Diverging from Schlink's novel, which unfolds chronologically in three distinct segments, the screenplay version of THE READER "jumps through time," in Hare's words, with a structure that transports the viewer into the main character's life at several different junctures from the 1950s through the 1990s and back again. A highly accomplished playwright, director and author weary of obedience to tradition, Hare struggles to revolt in his original works and he envisioned an exciting, fresh approach to his adaptation, without resorting to those "dreary old voice-overs" which often accompany first-person narratives.
"When I go to the cinema, I'm bored stiff by films whose shape and character I can predict from the moment I enter the theater," says Hare, who was determined to unchain THE READER from the binds of previous WWII-aftermath films that dealt with concentration camps, postwar anxieties, and individual complicity in crimes committed by the state. "I'm only interested in things that don't belong to any genre," he says, adding, "This is most certainly not what can be called 'a Holocaust picture.'"
"There have been 252 films made about the Holocaust," says Daldry, "and I hope there are at least as many more." But THE READER is something else, he believes, calling it "an odd piece" that belies expectations. Bucking the trend of previous survivor stories, a character revealed late in the film who made it through the camps alive is portrayed as a pillar of moral and intellectual strength as opposed to a weakened victim.
While Hare, Daldry, Minghella and Pollack understood the value of cinematic innovation and experimentation, one aspect of the project never wavered--respect and honor for those victims of Nazi war crimes. There was an understanding among the principals that the term "forgiveness" would not be mentioned--the film, in fact, avoids vague notions of redemption or forgiveness but, instead, deals with the very real problem of how a new generation comes to terms with its tarnished past.
To this end, both the screenwriter and the director toured Germany with author Schlink to discuss post-war guilt and the contentious reactions his novel provoked. "The book is of huge historical significance in Germany," says Daldry. "It is the singular novel addressing the problem of 'How do we continue after what we have done?'"
"It attracted both the most extraordinary praise and the most violent attacks," adds Hare. "Trying to explore and understand Nazi crimes is a dangerous and volatile business--you can unintentionally cross a line that you don't wish to."
Determined to explain "how the children of a criminal generation lived with the consequences" of their parents' misdeeds, Daldry was uncompromising. "The film tackles war crimes head on," says the director, careful not to depict concentration camp guards as horrific ogres or outré villains but, rather, as average workers and local neighbors. "It exposes ordinary people who commit these crimes--the banality of evil."
Unlike many screenwriters whose input stops after they deliver the final draft of their script, Hare was again welcomed into the filmmaking process by Daldry, just as he was on THE HOURS.
"Stephen allows me to be a collaborator from the beginning of filming to the end of editing," says the dramatist. "He won't work with people who are not committed to collaboration at a profound level. In that sense, it's more like working in theatre than film. He is the most thorough director I've ever worked with--nothing passes through the lens by chance."
As for the original author, Schlink too participated in ways he might have never imagined--even appearing as an extra in an outdoor beer garden scene where ill-fated lovers Hanna and Michael have lunch during a bicycling holiday. It was there he saw Daldry's obsessions with accuracy and honesty down to the smallest, slightest detail, whether it involved a period prop or a quick glimpse by one of the actors. "Stephen has a sensitivity for the most tiny, subtle things, and that's something I greatly admire."
Casting THE READER
From the start, novelist Schlink had imagined actress Kate Winslet for the pivotal role of Hanna Schmitz, the 36-year-old tram worker who has an illicit affair with a teenage boy and later is revealed to have been a concentration camp guard hiding yet another terrible secret. "Kate Winslet was always my first choice," says Schlink. "She's a sensuous, earthy woman, exactly like Hanna."
Winslet explains "I'm a relatively slow reader, but I just could not put it down and finished it in one day," she recalls. At the time, however, Winslet was only 27 and felt far too young to tackle the part. By the time director Daldry reached out to her in early 2007, however, she had matured enough to handle the physically demanding role, in which the character ages from a strong, sexual woman in her mid-thirties to a bedraggled matron in her late sixties.
Working with director Daldry was exhilarating for Winslet, who describes their "collaborative relationship" as "almost as if we're from the same tribe." Adds the actress, "He has this unstoppable energy, and such a profound love for the story. As well as a very clear idea of how he wants the story to be told, he's very happy for others to share ideas and come up with what's best for the scene."
For the role of Michael Berg, the youngster whose life is forever changed by his relationship with Hanna, Daldry selected two actors to cover the character's dramatic thirty-year story arc--relative newcomer David Kross and veteran Ralph Fiennes.
THE READER marks the third film for German actor Kross and his first-ever role in English, a language he perfected while making the movie. Daldry was determined to find a German youth for the role of Michael, and auditioned Kross repeatedly to make sure he was the right choice. Initially, Kross' mother felt the acting job might interfere with her son's schooling, but she agreed to let him take the part if his year-end grades were strong--he studied especially hard, passed his courses with near-perfect results, and eventually landed the role.
Kross worked as much as seven hours daily with dialect coach William Conacher not only to learn his character's dialogue , but also how to read Horace in Latin, and Sappho in Greek, in addition to other literature he recites in the film. "The challenge to me as a dialect coach was how to help a German cast speak English in a way that the audience would believe they were speaking their own language, and then find a way to slot Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes into it," recalls Conacher.
Because the storyline relies on depicting the sexual relationship between Hanna and Michael, the film's entire shooting schedule was structured so that Kross--who was just 15 when first cast--turned 18 before any of the bedroom scenes were shot.
The disparity in years between middle-aged Hanna and young Michael was one of the most controversial aspects of the novel -- yet the story would simply not work any other way. "Hanna and Michael are 36 and 15 respectively so that they are truly of two generations," explains Daldry. "Any closer age difference would change that."
Indeed, during her televised book club discussion of The Reader, Oprah Winfrey directly addressed the characters' age difference and its importance to the story. "Horrible things happen to people in many books I read that I consider to be part of the literature landscape, but I don't disown them or not embrace them because their stories are not comfortable for me," Winfrey said. "You can love the book without loving the relationship. I'm not condoning the relationship… Why couldn't the boy have been older? Well, it would have been a completely different story."
Playing the older Michael Berg who, many years later, is still trying to come to terms with his boyhood affair, Fiennes was initially attracted to THE READER because of the way the script balanced complex emotional issues. "The questions it asks about blame, judgment, guilt, love, sexuality are all quite complicated, but in the end it's a very humane story," he says. "The mark of a good screenplay is often that it seems simple, but the simple scenes include huge things. The beauty of this screenplay is that, in sentences which seem like an ordinary conversation, the undercurrents are full of different meanings and layers."
All three actors only rarely crossed paths, since Kross and Fiennes played the same character at different times, and Fiennes and Winslet share but a single scene together.
Winslet thought Kross was "perfect" for the role of the young man who matures before our eyes. "David is remarkably similar to Michael Berg--he's a very serious person, incredibly professional and sensitive. He's willing to try things and wants to learn and grow." Fiennes also praised the actor who plays a younger version of his character. "We don't quite look like each other, but I understand we may have similar qualities as actors, so I can see why Stephen put us together," explains Fiennes. "He is very natural, intelligent and aware, with a gentle humor that seems to float just beneath the surface."
Both of the actors relished their time with Winslet as well. "I didn't know anything about her really," admits Kross, who only saw the actress in TITANIC before beginning THE READER. But "working with her was not good, it was great," he says, noting that, like him, Winslet started acting when she was quite young. "She's very down to earth and very experienced." Agrees Fiennes, "Kate is a fantastic actress. All of her work is full and rich. She brings her intelligence to the set and she probes and asks questions. She's magnificent."
Cast in supporting roles and smaller parts vital to the production was a virtual who's who of German acting talent--"one of the greatest ensembles of German actors in recent history," says Daldry, proudly. American movies fans will likely recognize Bruno Ganz (WINGS OF DESIRE) in the role of Michael's law professor, Rohl, as well as Mattias Habich (NOWHERE IN AFRICA, DOWNFALL) as Michael's father. Other top German actors in the film include Susanne Lothar as Michael's mother, Karoline Herfurth as Michael's university love, Alexandra Maria Lara as young Holocaust survivor Ilana, Volker Bruch as his fellow law student, and Burghart Klaussner as a war crimes judge. Also in the film are Martin Brambach, Marie Gruber, Margarita Broich, Carmen-Maja Antoni and Hannah Herzsprung.
A Note About the Producers
During the making of THE READER in early 2008, both Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack passed away, Minghella in March at the age of 54 and Pollack just two months later at 73. "They were enormous pillars of strength," says Daldry, adding "it was shattering for all of us who knew these extraordinary men that they would not live to see the finished film." Yet, in many way, their individual spirits still helped to guide the production. "All the time, Stephen and I asked one another, 'Would Sydney be happy that we're doing this?' or 'Would Anthony like that?'," recalls Hare about their posthumous presence on the set and in the editing room. "Our ambition with the film was to make something these two men would have been proud of."
About the Filmmakers
STEPHEN DALDRY / Director
Stephen Daldry's first feature film, BILLY ELLIOT, won over 40 awards worldwide and received three Oscar nominations including Best Director. His second feature, THE HOURS, also won innumerable international awards and received nine Oscar and eleven BAFTA nominations. Daldry also produced two "Omnibus" programs for BBC2.
Daldry's stage adaptation of "Billy Elliot" recently opened to rave reviews on Broadway after successful runs in London and Melbourne.
He previously directed a number of works for the Royal Court Theatre, including: "A Number by Caryl Churchill"; "Far Away by Caryl Churchill" (also at the Albery Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop); "Via Dolorosa by David Hare" (also at the Duchess Theatre and on Broadway); "Rat in the Skull" by Ron Hutchinson (Royal Court Classic Season); "Body Talk"; "The Kitchen" by Arnold Wesker; "The Editing Process" by Meredith Oakes; and "Search and Destroy" by Howard Korder.
For the National Theatre, Daldry directed "An Inspector Calls" (also West End, Broadway and worldwide) and "Machinal." For the Gate Theatre he directed "Damned for Despair"; "The Fleisser Plays" (with Annie Castledine); and "Figaro Gets Divorced."
Daldry directed many productions at Sheffield Crucible Theatre, where he started his career under the late Clare Venables. He followed with productions at the Manchester Library Theatre, the Liverpool Playhouse, the Stratford East, the Oxford Stage, and the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Daldry was Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1992-98 where he headed the £26 million re-development; the Gate Theatre (1989-92) and the Metro Theatre Company (1984-86). He is on the Board of the Young and Old Vic Theatres and remains an Associate Director of the Royal Court. Daldry was the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre for 2002 at St Catherine's College, Oxford. He has won many awards for his theatrical work both in the UK and the USA.
DAVID HARE / Screenwriter
David Hare is a writer and director for stage, television and film. In 2002 he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for THE HOURS, his previous collaboration with Stephen Daldry, for which Nicole Kidman was won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Hare was also nominated for the BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards, and won the Writers Guild of America Award. A world-renowned playwright, David Hare's first foray into film, as writer-director, was WETHERBY, winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1985, featuring a strong central performance by Vanessa Redgrave. His second feature, PARIS BY NIGHT, starred Charlotte Rampling, and in 1989 STRAPLESS starred Blair Brown. Hare also provided the screenplay for Louis Malle's DAMAGE, adapted from Josephine Hart's best-selling novel, starring Miranda Richardson, Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, and has adapted his own plays for the screen: PLENTY directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Meryl Streep; THE SECRET RAPTURE directed by Howard Davies; and MY ZINC BED directed by Anthony Page and starring Uma Thurman. David Hare was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his contribution to the Arts in the 1998 Birthday Honours List.
BERNARD SCHLINK / The Reader Author
Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany in 1944. He is the author of the internationally best-selling The Reader (1995), a partly autobiographical novel about a teenager who has an affair with a woman in her thirties who suddenly vanishes but whom he meets again as a law student when visiting a trial about war crimes.
The Reader was an Oprah Book Club choice book, became a best-seller both in Germany and the United States and was translated into 40 languages. It was the first German book to reach the #1 position on The New York Times bestseller list, and has 2.1 million copies in print the US. In 1997 it won the Hans Fallada Prize, an Italian literary award, and the Prix Laure Bataillon for works translated into French. In 1999 it was awarded the "WELT-Literaturpreis" of the newspaper Die Welt.
Schlink is also the author of a collection of short fiction called Flights of Love (2000), and a novel Homecoming (2008), as well as a series of detective novels with a main character named Selb-a play on the German word for "self" (Self's Punishment, co-written with Walter Popp, Self's Murder, Self's Punishment). Two of Schlink's works have been adapted for film: THE READER and the short story, THE OTHER MAN, filmed by director Richard Eyre, starring Antonio Banderas, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, and Romola Garai. Schlink now lives in Bonn and Berlin.
READ MORE: Preparing for THE READER
THE READER : A Nation--and a Generation--Scarred By Guilt
The German Government's Post-War Stance
But What of the Next Generation?
Hanna and Michael - Old and New Germany
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