The reader

The reader (in German Der Vorleser , literally “the one who reads aloud”) is a novel written by law professor and German judge Bernhard Schlink . It was published in Germany in 1995 and in the United States, translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway in 1997. The book was translated into thirty-nine languages. The issue is the Holocaust and the way in which the culprits are to be tried, and therefore poses a moral dilemma. At the same time, it deals with the generational conflict of the postwar period , especially in the description of the relation of the main personage, a teenager, with its father.

Schlink’s book was very well received in his native country, as it was in the United States , where he received numerous awards. It became the first German novel to reach the top spot on the New York Times best-selling list . In turn, it was included in the university curriculum of the literature courses on the Holocaust, German and German literature .

In 2008 director Stephen Daldry directed the film version of the book, which was nominated for five Academy Awards , which won the Academy Award for best actress for Kate Winslet for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz.


The story is told by the main character, Michael Berg, divided into three parts. The action takes place in Germany in three different moments of the second half of the 20th century.

First part : It’s the year 1958. Michael, a fifteen-year-old boy, sick with yellow fever on his way home. Hanna Schmitz, twenty-one years older than he, sees him at the door of his house and after cleaning it accompanies him to his house. Michael spends the next three months in bed battling scarlet fever.

Michael goes to visit Hanna to thank her for her help and realizes that she is attracted to her. Embarrassed to be discovered spying on her while she dressed, she runs away. However, he returns a few days later. Hanna asks Michael to help him raise coal to his apartment, leaving him covered with soot. She prepares the bathtub and washes her clothes. When he finishes the bath, he seduces him.

Michael, enthusiastic, will visit her regularly, and begin a primarily sexual relationship. They develop as a ritual bathing and then making love, before which she asks him to read aloud, usually works of classical literature, among which are the Odyssey and The Lady of the Dog . Although their encounters become more and more frequent, they remain emotionally distant. From time to time, Hanna verbally and physically abuses Michael.

Months later, Hanna disappears without a trace. The distance between them grows as Michael spends more time with his school friends and less with her, so he feels guilty and believes that it was something he did that caused Hanna’s departure. His memory will ruin any future relationship between Michael and any other woman.

Part Two : Seven years later, Michael studies Law and comes with other students and the professor to a trial against Nazi war criminals. A group of women who had served as guards for the SS were being judged for allowing three hundred Jewish women die in a fire in a church that was bombed during one of the death marches of concentration camp who was in charge, Claiming to have done so for his alleged protection. Only one woman survived, who escaped the fire. At the end of the war, he had emigrated to the United States and wrote a book about his life. It was therefore cited as the main witness of the indictment.

To Michael’s surprise, Hanna is one of the accused, which leads him to a roller coaster of emotions that meet and misunderstand: he feels bad for having loved a relentless criminal and in turn is dismayed by Hanna’s will to Accept full responsibility for supervising other guards even if there is no definitive evidence.

During the trial, it comes to light that Hanna took weak or sick prisoners and asked them to read aloud before sending them to the gas chamber . Michael wonders if Hanna did it to give the prisoners a few days merely tolerable or if he sent them to death lest they reveal their secret. Then she is accused by the other guarding companions of being the one in charge of writing the report on what happened during the fire. You are asked to type to compare the letter with the report. At the last moment, she states that she had written it, thus provoking her own life sentence . Michael, for his part, realizes at the time that she is actually illiterate and is ashamed to acknowledge it. Before the sentence is pronounced he is about to announce that he knows her and that she does not know how to read, so she could not write the report, but she finally decides to silence her secret. It is asked if it is ethical to help her against her will so that something of what she is deeply ashamed can not be heard.

Part Three : Michael has been married, has had a daughter and has been divorced. Trying to appease his emotions in some way, he begins to record his own book reading on a tape recorder, and sends them to Hanna without any letters. Hanna decides to ask in the library of the jail the book that Michael has recorded to him and from words that are repeated like the articles begins to learn to read and to write by its account, following the reading with the book ahead. Michael receives letters from Hanna, but refuses to respond with more than the tapes, he can not get the idea of ​​writing.

In 1984 Hanna is serving her 18 year sentence and is about to be released. Since she is the only person who maintains contact with her, the prison address asks her to take care of her or find her home and work. Michael agrees, but not hesitantly. The day of his release he will pick her up and find that the day before Hannah has committed suicide, which leaves Michael devastated. The official tells her that Hanna had read several books written by Holocaust survivors and many about concentration camps , and that she had finally asked her to give all her savings to the survivor of the church fire.

When Michael goes to see this woman in New York, she tells her story. She, distant and now a very rich woman, does not agree to accept the money, since accepting it would be equivalent to giving absolution , which is not thought capable of doing. He suggests that he can donate it and he decides to give it on behalf of Hanna to a Jewish organization to fight against illiteracy. Instead, she accepted the tea can, where Hanna kept her savings, because she had a similar tin in the concentration camp and stole it.

Back in Germany, Michael takes his daughter to see Hanna’s grave and begins to tell her story with her.


The novel received mostly favorable reviews, both in the German-speaking world and in its translated versions. Above all praised the precise style of Schlink, the narration so direct and the particular way of confronting the past.

On the other hand, the author also received several negative reviews regarding his description of the Nazi crimes , which, according to critics such as Jeremy Adler ( Süddeutsche Zeitung ), are simplified in the novel. In this way, Schlink would be incurring historical counterfeiting .


From The reader 500,000 copies were sold in Germany and received numerous accolades and awards. In 2004 the ZDF television network published the list of the 100 books preferred by the German readers. The reader got the 14th place, the second highest position reached by a contemporary German novel.

In 1998, El lector won the German literature award Hans Fallada Prize .

Translation into English

In the United States 750 000 copies of the book were sold, many of which were sold after it was included in the Book Club of TV host Oprah Winfrey in 1999.

In England 200,000 copies were sold.

The book was awarded in 1999 with the Boeke Prize .

Adaptation to the cinema

In 2007 it was announced the filming of The Reader in its English version. The adaptation of the script was run by the British David Hare , while his compatriot Stephen Daldry took over the leadership. Both had already collaborated on the hit independent film Las horas (2002). As in that time, they thought to have the participation of the Australian Nicole Kidman , who, however, declared herself indisposed for her pregnancy. In this way, the young German actor David Kross , who plays the young Michael, was accompanied by the British Kate Winslet , like Hanna, and Ralph Fiennes , as the adult version of Michael. In turn the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz and the Swedish actress Lena Olin played supporting roles, Ganz as the law professor of Michael and Olin as the survivor of the church fire.

The film was released in cinemas in January 2009. Received successfully by critics and audiences, it was nominated for five Academy Awards , of which Kate Winslet was awarded the Oscar for Best Leading Actress.