Based on the award-winning book by Bernhard Schlink The Reader is an extraordinary provocative and controversial story set in post-World War II Germany. It starts when 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) becomes ill with scarlet fever and is helped home by sympathetic woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). After his recovery he returns to thank her and is drawn into a clandestine affair with this intriguing woman more than twice his age. Their relationship grows stronger especially when he starts reading to her. But then she suddenly disappears leaving a devastated Michael who now must move on with his life. Little does he know that eight years later while he is in law school he would see Hanna again -- as one of the defendants in a court case against Nazi war criminals. Shocked at revelations about her secret past he also discovers something that will change both their lives forever. Granted Kate Winslet is one of the finest young screen actresses but her range in The Reader will astonish you. It’s an extremely tricky part that could easily lose the audience’s sympathy if done incorrectly but Winslet handles it with aplomb. She runs through the whole gamut of emotions -- aging from her 30s to 60s -- all at once sexy mysterious conflicted contrite as well as many other colors. As Michael newcomer Kross is devastatingly good the most impressive acting discovery in a long time. Although he plays 15 he was 17 at the start of filming and production had to shut down until he turned 18 for the graphic sex scenes. As the story flashes forward Ralph Fiennes takes over the role as the older Michael and does so with a touching sincerity. Lena Olin also has a strong cameo as a Holocaust survivor with definite opinions of Hanna. Although this is only acclaimed stage director Stephen Daldry’s third film he once again shows a mastery of the medium far beyond his limited cinematic resume. Like The Hours and his debut film Billy Elliot he has crafted another film to savor. The Reader isn’t necessarily the most comfortable film to watch but Daldry guides the subject matter with a delicate and steady hand giving us a complex and touching love story between the most unlikely couple. It also delves into how one generation of Germans can come to terms with the horrors of another. Daldry’s directorial restraint and power perfectly serves David Hare’s impressive screenplay and delivers a memorable movie-going experience.
Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is the German Democratic Republic's ultimate company man. So good at conducting interrogations and spotting liars he teaches new State Security ("Stasi") recruits how to do both and dedicates his life to watching and exposing "comrades" who aren't quite as loyal as they should be. But when he starts conducting surveillance on dashing playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck) Wiesler finds himself getting caught up in their real-life drama--particularly after he discovers the true reason Dreyman has come under suspicion. As the stakes rise Wiesler's dedication to the Socialist Unity Party battles his growing sense of what honor truly is. The Lives of Others is full of strong performances with Muhe's at the top of the list. Resembling a German Kevin Spacey he conveys most of Wiesler's changing outlook through his large expressive eyes. As Wiesler's exposure to the color and passion of Georg and Christa-Marie's life underlines the stark emptiness of his own Muhe signals through slight changes in his character's rigid discipline much more is going on beneath the surface. Koch and Gedeck are also excellent. Georg and Christa-Marie's need for self-expression is constantly stifled by the pressure to be good party members and both actors--particularly Gedeck--make it clear what the personal cost of that conflict can be. In the supporting cast Ulrich Tukur does a nice job as Wiesler's secret police colleague/supervisor Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz turning what could have been a one-note performance into a role with unexpected nuances. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck--who grew up in West Germany but visited the East as a child with his parents--has said that he spent four years researching The Lives of Others and it shows. The stark impersonal nature of much of the socialists' daily lives has the stamp of authenticity as does the film's mood of constant fear and suspicion. By contrasting scenes set in Georg and Christa-Marie's eclectic lived-in apartment--a haven from the world of informants and efficiency--with shots of a solitary Wiesler eavesdropping via headphone von Donnersmarck shows how even a tenuous connection to the world of passion and art can transform a life. In the end it is the characters' most human instincts--be they good or bad--that determine their fate not the party's rules and regulations.