01/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reading The Reader

Some American film critics are responding to the film adaptation of The Reader as if it were the tale of a Nazi guard. However, much like Bernhard Schlink's international bestseller -- to which it is remarkably faithful -- the new movie is the story of a young German man. We see only as much of Hanna (Kate Winslet) as does Michael (David Kross, and Ralph Fiennes in the adult role). And Michael functions as a metaphor for his generation: like post-war Germany, he is drawn to this secretive emblem of the past, then repulsed, and finally makes a wary accommodation.

In order to maintain this crucial aspect of the novel, director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (who previously collaborated on The Hours) kept the ages of the characters intact: when they meet, Michael is l5, and Hanna 36. (I interviewed Daldry after a preview of The Reader at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, where he affirmed that they had to be of two different generations.)

It is reductive to assess The Reader in terms of sexual abuse, given how both the novel and the film present a moral coming-of-age that follows a sexual one. Their first love scene is depicted as a seduction that is far from "rape": Hanna has noticed Michael's yearning glances at her legs, as well as the undergarments she irons, and she fulfills his fantasies. This is in the European tradition of the "education sentimentale," in which an older woman plays a major role in the young male's coming of age.

One might recall Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, where the besotted young Jean-Pierre Leaud is visited by the mature Delphine Seyrig, offering him the opportunity to act on his crush. These female characters are less predators than educators: "I didn't think I was good at anything," Michael says, but his erotic relationship with Hanna gives him a new confidence that carries over into sports and flirtation with girls.

The Reader is a European film in English. Like Pretty Baby -- for which director Louis Malle was vociferously attacked in l978 -- it might have offended fewer American viewers if it had been a subtitled movie.

Another misconception is about the degree of sympathy The Reader elicits for Hanna. Daldry takes his cue from the novel: "She was guilty, but not as guilty as she appeared." The films's moral ambiguity is thickened by her sentence being disproportionate to the other former Nazi guards on trial: because of Hanna's self-incriminating refusal to provide a handwriting sample (her shameful secret is illiteracy), she gets life in prison. At the Y, he called her "morally illiterate," and explained how he guarded against any facile sympathy for Hanna's character. Whereas the novel shows her cell lined with books about the Holocaust -- Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, etc. -- the film does not. Even if Hanna punishes herself so harshly that we don't have to add our own indignation, Daldry does not let her off the hook.

The Reader is morally complex, an intentionally and successfully disturbing story whose focus is generational understanding rather than sexual inappropriateness.