(a “we’re only as sick as our secrets” in our “invisible prisons” film review by Timothy J. Verret)
“How far would you go to protect a secret?” “Unlock the mystery?” The only secret mystery to unlock is the secrets we keep in our “invisible prisons.” I’ve been writing a lot lately about these “invisible prisons,” what I label as those (most) walking around seemingly imprisoned to our egos and our secrets. If we pay close attention, we will be able to “see” others in these “invisible prisons” and if we pay real close attention, we will be able to “see” ourselves in these, as well. THE READER is a film about just this and how there are not only physical prisons in this world but also “invisible prisons” of our own fleshly making. They usually are our own making when we find ourselves imprisoned “out” of love.
THE READER, directed by the exceptionally- and deeply-probing Stephen Daldry (who also directed THE HOURS , which is #2 on my all-time favorite film list), is a film about what happens when a love affair lasts only a summer but produces life-time guilt when the affair is “out” of love. Young Michael, played impressively by actor David Cross, falls in love with an older Hanna Schmitz, played impressively and more-about-that-to-be-discussed-later actress Kate Winslet, and the love’s summer fling is marked by Michael reading to Hanna who is illiterate. The fling ends because Hanna is offered a job position that would require her to read and write and rather than “unlock that mystery,” she leaves her home, thus leaving Michael, as well. Years later, when Michael is getting his education to be a lawyer, he is in a courtroom where Hanna is on trial for Nazi war crimes in an Auschwitz concentration camp. What unfolds from here on “out” is all about “we’re only as sick as our secrets” and how Hanna’s sentence of a lifetime imprisonment in a physical jail cell is all about a lifetime imprisonment in an “invisible prison.”
When we go to the grave with secrets, we go to the grave with guilt. When old Michael reaches out to Hanna again in what I consider the greatest act of love, i.e., he makes tapes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison, he is loving her so much and yet it’s not the same love as young Michael had with her during that love’s summer fling. When Hanna realizes this after a visit from old Michael to set her up in an apartment and a job (and a library nearby where she’ll live) when released, she hangs herself in her physical prison AND her “invisible prison,” ironically stepping on books on a table for her hanging. She steps on the very things that have always been her hope at a very time of hopelessness. I don’t normally like to give secrets like this away for those who have not seen a film, but it’s important to not focus on the fact of “what?” in this film (Hanna killed herself) but focus more on “why?” “Why?” is because Hanna could not forget her past, could not accept her present, could not look forward to her future without Michael. She had to go to the grave with secrets and guilt over her inability (or incapability) to forget and accept and look forward to. Does this sound at all familiar?
Actress Kate Winslet is in the same camp (no pun intended) as my favorite actress of all time, Jessica Lange. They BOTH, as actresses, have incredible depth of emotions in their characterizations. They BOTH take us to emotional places as viewers that we would never take if it weren’t for them. Winslet is breathtakingly brilliant as Hanna Schmitz, winning a well-deserved (no doubt whatsoever about this win!) Best Actress Oscar. Winslet plays Hanna as stern while at the same gentle, uncompromising while at the same vulnerable, hard of heart because of kept secrets while at the same time heartfelt because of kept secrets (yep, Lange acts exactly this way, too). It’s a performance that I deem the best of Winslet’s sensational journey as an actress and one of the best performances ever given by an actress! Kross is sensational as young Michael and Ralph Fiennes equally sensational as old Michael. Lena Olin plays BOTH parts of an older Jewish woman called forth to testify at Hanna’s trial and then at the end of the film, the surviving daughter of this older Jewish woman.
On the above BOTH note, the ending of THE READER is incredibly revealing and devastating, even more so than Hanna’s suicide. Old Michael visits the daughter of the older Jewish woman to give her a tin container with money inside it that Hanna asked Michael to give to her. When he takes out the tin container, the daughter tells him that she had a tin container like this one in the camps where she kept sentimental things inside, but this was not the same one. When the daughter tells Michael she will not accept the money from Hanna because “nothing comes out of the camps” and therefore nothing should be anything in remembrance of these camps, Michael agrees to give the money to a Jewish organization, preferably one that deals with illiteracy. When she does tell Michael she will keep the tin container, he leaves and then we see her put it on a shelf next to a photo of her family, most of who were killed in the camps. I might be wrong, but that scene led me to believe this tin container is actually the same one she had in the camps. Like all the characters in this film, the daughter of the older Jewish woman kept this a secret from Michael. Why? “We’re only as sick as our secrets” when after all the pain and guilt and longing “out” of love we’ve walked (and often crawled) through, we still lock ourselves away in “invisible prisons.”
I just can’t end this film review without mentioning a line from what I believe to be Hanna’s favorite book that young Michael and old Michael read to her, Anton Chekov’s The Lady with the Dog. The line is, “It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: A lady with a little dog.” I honestly do believe (and pray) that this new person appearing on the sea-front is Hanna in Heaven. I honestly do believe (and pray) Hanna is now free to roam the sea-front with (or without) a little dog. And I honestly do believe (and pray) that this new person, Hanna, will be appearing in Heaven with young AND old Michael with (or without) a dog. Because I believe (and pray) that those who are “only as sick as their secrets” in their “invisible prisons” will know the freedom to love “in” and play (and pray) on the sea-front of their own making in Heaven.
Exceptional is THE READER, BOTH a book (written by Bernhard Schlink) AND a film to be treasured, if anything to plead with us to unlock the buried treasure that is our “sick secrets.” To unlock the mystery of these secrets is to escape our past once and for all and free ourselves to love “in” and free ourselves from our “invisible prisons.” Please get “out” of these “invisible prisons” TODAY and set love free TODAY!