The curse of illiteracy haunts Hanna, the female protagonist in the movie "The Reader", and it is a curse she is not ready to disclose to the world, not even to her 15 year old paramour Michael, with whom she establishes a relationship defying all social norms of the day. The fact that the movie depicts a post war Germany is important in so far as it gives a context to the heinous crime Hanna commits after she disappears from young Michael's life.
The relationship between Hanna, a forty year old illiterate bus conductor in Germany during the 1950s, and Michael, a 15 year old school boy, is driven by passion. However, the nature of their passion differs at both ends. For Michael, the teenager, it is about wanting to experience and explore his sexuality, and for Hanna, who is illiterate, it is about wanting to hear what is in those books and novels that she is incapable of reading. Both have different expectations from the relationship, and yet it flowers because of the intensity of their individual passions. I think Daldry, the director, deliberately introduced those torrid love making scenes between the two for the reader to sense how the passion burned within them. Since Daldry could not visually depict the cerebral passion that drove Hanna, he hoped the viewer would be able to gauge it by looking at what Hanna was prepared to do, to sexually gratify a 'kid', in order to live out her own passion for stories. Does that mean that Hanna was completely uninvolved with the 'kid' as she always refers to him? That's a question you'll have to figure out when you watch this movie based on Bernard Schlink's novel published in German in 1995.
The film maker and the writer have been accused of trying to assuage the guilt of Germans who lived during or immediately after the Holocaust. However, I am not so sure the Holocaust was the real focus of the film; it is illiteracy that seems to take center stage: its far reaching effects, and what it can do to a life. What ultimately happens to Hanna in the story is self explanatory; there is no condoning the Holocaust or Hanna's part in it, but there is an implicit pointer embedded in the film telling us that Hanna's role could have been different had she had the ability to make informed decisions. Alas, it was her shame and misfortune to be illiterate and thus uninformed, and that cost her not just her own life, but also the lives of 300 others!
All through the movie Hanna is consumed by her shame of being illiterate, something which Michael is able to transform into passion at two separate times in Hanna's life. The first time he does it inadvertently while satiating his own juvenile sexual fantasies, but the second time he does it with the awareness of a friend who knows how much stories, and reading them, mean to Hanna.
Clearly, the writer wants to send a message here that reading adds new dimension to human awareness and is therefore crucial to our decision making ability. It is particularly important to those of us who live alone, or who are private/reserved by nature and share little with the world, except vicariously through books and other multimedia productions. In some of our 'developed nations' we often take literacy for granted, and this movie, "The Reader", takes us back in time to show us a horrific impact of illiteracy in Hanna's world of post war Germany. Illiteracy is definitely the villain in the story since it holds potential to bring untold shame and horror to those who house it; like it did to Hanna and the other prison guards in "The Reader".
I may have looked too long and too deep into this movie so you may want to watch it simply because Kate Winslet gives an amazing performance in this movie as a reluctant seductress, a heartless guard, and a confused war criminal with an indescribable passion for books.