his 1995 novel The Reader, Bernhard Schlink provides a unique insight into the complexity of the German equivalent for ‘baby boomers,’ namely the generation that was born in the second half of the 1940s, which are often called “the lucky late-born.” Broadly speaking, the novel deals with an ambivalent love affair between Michael Berg, a teenager in the 1950s and the narrator of the story, and Hanna Schmitz, an illiterate streetcar conductor, who served as a guard in a concentration camp in Poland and later being accused for being responsible for the death of 300 female inmates in a burning church. The book is divided into three parts:
The first part describes their meeting in a West German university town in the winter of 1958, a random meeting that evolved into a series of passionate encounters during the following summer.
In the second part, Michael has grown and he is now a law student and monitors a trial, which held for a group of middle-aged women who served as SS guards. Hanna admits responsibly for the group’s false account for the massive death in the church, confessing that she wrote the report in order to avoid revealing her illiteracy.
During the third part, Michael, now a law historian, re-establish a connection with Hanna in the form of taping books for her and receiving her childish-written letters. She commits suicide just before her rerelease from prison, ordering him to give her modest savings to one of the victims.
The character of Hanna is used as a representative of the older generation, which took part in the Nazi horrors. Her personal traits are derived from two secrets: her past and actions in the SS and her illiteracy. The latter is a major source of shame for her, even more than the first secret; in fact, her inability to admit it underpinned her tragic decisions through her lifetime – avoiding promotion to office duties, joining the SS and refusing to reveal her illiteracy even in the face of life sentence.
Schlink (through Michael’s reflections) does not ignore Hanna’s fault. Instead, he creates a possible analogy between her character and her generation in both critical and compassionate fashions. For example, her affection for classic literature is confronted by the incapability to read it first hand, hence creating a dependency on readers, who may also be interpreters; moreover, her appearance in court reveals the deadly results of the actions of this extremely naive woman, who Michael depicts as “conscientiously unscrupulous.”
Her relationship with young Michael Berg shed light on the loneliness of her lower-class life, a direct result of her persistency not to disclose her secret. She leads the relationship, which is mainly based on sexual encounters in her flat and from reading aloud of books by Michael, an upper-class teenager who hides his relationship with Hanna from his family and friends. The relationship ends prematurely as Hanna leaves town after a misunderstanding.
Tried in court for her war crimes, Hanna is astonishingly open about her deeds. She confesses that she knew that the inmates that were sent to Auschwitz are going to be killed and explains her reluctance to let the women go out of the bombed church during the Death March. Her question to the judge (“what would you have done?”) suggests they she has given up her own moral judgment, asking the administrator to give her instructions.
There are more than a few ways to analyze the character of Hanna. The view presented here, which depicts the polarity of her personality, weaknesses and actions as an analogue to the “old” German generation (relatively to the 1944-born Schlink), calls for two opposite emotions:
On one hand, Hanna has committed incomprehensible crimes during the war and was abusive and offensive towards Michael; on the other, she has turned him into a man, made him self-confident and shouts to his attention at later stages. In his critical reflections, Michael tries to understand and condemn Hanna, but realizes that these two intellectual efforts are, by definition, mutually exclusive.
The 2008 film by Stephen Daldry tends to ignore those question, partially by not dealing with Michael’s judgements. Instead, the film treats Hanna’s course of personality development throughout the years and deals with her unique approach towards love and Michael. Moreover, their relationship seems much more focused, personal and unrepresentative; thus, one is more prone to reflect on the nature of the relations in such an age difference than on the relationship between Michael and post-war Germany.
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