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Years later, Michael and Hanna meet again. Michael is now a law student, and he discovers that, before he met Hanna, she'd been a guard at Auschwitz and is now on trial for murdering 60 Jewish women, who, under orders, she refused to let out of a burning, padlocked church. He realizes her even deeper secret: she's illiterate and ashamed of it.
Hanna goes to prison; Michael grows into Ralph Fiennes, who, by sending tapes of himself reading Homer, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Shakespeare's tragedies, teaches her to read. Schlink and Hare make much of her illiteracy, and even name the book after Hanna's condition, as if those who don't read end up being morally and emotionally stunted. We're supposed to feel that, except in her loving tenderness toward Michael, Hanna has little sense of empathy and moral responsibility.
With the help of reading great literature, Hannah comes to see what she's done by blindly following inhuman orders. She was told to guard prisoners and did so without any thought of the consequences. Now, the film tries to argue, she's come to realize the horror of what she's done.
Schlink has said he didn't write his book about the Holocaust, but about the generation who learned that their parents (or lovers) had conducted it and committed its horrors. Much is sketchy in the book, but its exploration of the "banality of evil" forces us to consider the possibility that tender love for a child or a lover can coexist with the most inhuman cruelty.
Just as Streep, in the barely contained agitation of her characters, can make us feel her characters feeling life, Winslet, in her best roles, draws us spellbound into the inner dilemmas her characters feel. But with her, we're typically most immersed in the performances as we watch her standing still and thinking, so upright, so focused, so purposeful. And, of course, there are those eyes. When you've been gazed at by Winslet, you stay gazed at. Like all truly great screen actors, she has the ability to tell us in a blink everything we need to know. The most intelligent of today's leading actresses, she can take us deeper than anyone else into the hearts and minds of the people she brings to life for us. And, in the miracle of multitiered artistry that won her an Oscar for The Reader, the pinnacle of her achievement as an actress so far, she proves that she can reveal the depths and dangers that someone harbors in the most hidden regions of the mind, even if that character is desperate to keep that knowledge from herself.
Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and is in private practice. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this department can be e-mailed to Letters@psychnetworker.org.