The story begins in the 1950s, when fifteen-year-old Michael suddenly falls ill with scarlet fever and is helped by a girl 20 years older than him. Hannah is a reserved person, but despite the difference in age, a romance begins between them. Very often, Hannah asks a young man to read to her, but she does not do it herself. The novel ends unexpectedly, but a few years later, Michael, a law student, sees Hana at the trial of several guards of a small concentration camp, from where the prisoners were sent to Auschwitz.
Women are tried for not releasing the prisoners from the burning church, as a result, almost all died. During the trial, the other guards try to put the blame on Hanna, saying that she was their boss and proving this with a report supposedly written by Hanna. But Michael knows that the woman is illiterate, which means that her guilt in the tragedy is no more than that of other overseers. But he cannot say this, because he understands that he will disgrace Hannah if he tells that she is illiterate. As a result, Hannah receives a life sentence. Feeling guilty, Michael sends her audio recordings of books, thanks to which a woman learns to read and write in prison. In parallel, he marries, has a daughter, gets divorced.
20 years pass, the court decides to release Hana ahead of schedule, but she has no one at large. The prison authorities ask for help, but shortly before her release, the woman commits suicide and asks in a posthumous note to transfer the money to one of the prisoners, Ilana, who then survived the burning church. Michael travels to the USA, but finds out that Ilana died long ago. My daughter refused to accept the money, but took the box – exactly the same one was taken from her in the camp. She decided to donate the money to the foundation to combat illiteracy.
The theme of the film is complex. First, guilt and remorse. Does the heroine feel guilty for the massacre? She just did what she was told and did her job the same way she did as a tram driver as an adult.
During the seminar, Michael’s teacher says that there is law and morality. And the law at all times turns out to be higher than morality. The heroine simply acted according to the law of those times, moreover, she was young and stupid. She believes that she was only a guard, and if she released the prisoners from the church, there would be a mess. This is the German mentality and for them discipline and order are above all else. For her, the law of the Reich was binding and indisputable.
Does the protagonist feel guilty before Hannah? He is well aware that she is a criminal, but her guilt in the tragedy is much less than that of other guards. Then he could have said that Hannah was illiterate and dishonored her, but at the trial he did not, thereby provoking the heroine’s life imprisonment. He could have done it and turned things around, but the morality of those times would have condemned the romance between a schoolboy and an adult woman. But he tries to redeem himself by sending her books and helping her learn to read and write as an adult.
Another issue raised in the film is the development of a teenager. Youth. Who did not like to read aloud, did it for his mistress. So he learned beautiful speech and this helped him in his career as a lawyer. Did his first love help him, albeit such a non-standard one? Yes.
A film about the difference between generations. If young Michael makes a choice, relatives say that everything will be as he wants, then Hanna lived like everyone else and did not have much choice – at 18 she worked at a factory, at 20 – in a concentration camp, because she was offered, at 36 – as a driver tram. Love is possible between these generations, but they cannot help each other. This is love of different laws and times, but they are incompatible.
The story ends sadly – an adult Michael brings a young daughter to the grave of Khana and tells that when he was fifteen years old, this woman helped him. Did it really help? Quite, he found his talent. Did he help her? Perhaps, because thanks to him she learned to read, which in adulthood is no longer easy.
The film is not only about forgiveness, but also about the difference in times.