Kate Winslet stars as Hanna Schmitz, a woman who has an affair with a teenage boy in Germany. After a few summer months, she moves away and disappears from his life. Years later, that same young man, Michael Berg (played by newcomer David Koss), attends a trial as a law student and sees Hanna again. She is accused of killing Jews as a guard in the service of the S.S. The movie also shows a much older Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes) decades after the trial, reflecting on the events from both time periods and his current strained relationship with his adult daughter. Dealing with issues of justice and morality mixed with personal ideas of love and relationships, the plot was surprisingly intriguing and captivating. Even though it was far from action-packed, as I watched the movie I was very eager for the story to progress.
I think it’s always a challenge to be sufficiently sensitive when dealing with the Holocaust on film. Even though this movie did not show any scenes of the war, I’m sure it was still difficult to find the right tone that would be respectful and truthful. It was great to struggle with the kinds of questions that this movie brings up through the eyes of Michael, but it was also a bit odd because Hanna was out of his life during the critical period. We don’t get to experience any of the really tough war times on screen. The lighter scenes (all the stuff with the romance between the two characters) took a lot of time, and didn’t balance the heavier trial scenes and the discussions Michael has with his professor. It’s almost like two different movies stitched together.
Kate Winslet gives an excellent performance as always. She portrays Hanna as a gruff woman whose hard exterior is only broken through occasionally by Michael’s tenderness. David Koss is also very good as the young Michael. He really captures the innocence and warmth of his character. Unfortunately he’s less convincing as the conflicted law student. Growing some wispy facial hair and looking somewhat pained and brooding were not really enough to give gravitas to the kinds of inner struggles he endured. Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael seemed adequate enough. There wasn’t really that much for him to do and I guess both he and law-school Michael were meant to have a somewhat inscrutable, non-communicative personality. One of the things I was really glad about was the accents. Though all the dialogue was in English, I appreciated that all the actors put on German accents. (A German audience member might find it lame, but for me it was so much better than having a British accent be the default for any European character speaking English dialogue, even if it was supposed to be German.)
Overall I enjoyed the movie very much, though the ending kind of slowed to an anti-climactic crawl. The trial and Michael’s struggles with the outcome were the real climax of the movie, but there was a lot to cover even after that portion of the film and it just went on to finish the story of Hanna, but the rest was far less interesting. For the first two-thirds this was probably a 4.5 out of 5, but the last third was about a 3, so let’s split the difference and call it 4 out of 5 overall.