In traditional coming-of-age tales, sexuality opens up new worlds for a young man, and the first affair helps transform him from a child to a man. But in Bernhard Schlink's best-selling story about paralyzing guilt and secrets, young Michael Berg (David Kross) is permanently derailed by a seduction that will forever exile him from the world of adult relations and the true pleasures of emotional and sexual intimacy.
In postwar Germany 15-year-old Michael collapses from scarlet fever in front of an apartment building and is rescued by a 30-something tenant who soon takes the youth into her bed. The boy is dumbstruck with infatuation and cuts himself off from family and friends in his obsession with the rapacious but distant Hanna (Kate Winslet), who treats Michael more like a pet than a lover, demanding that he read to her before every tryst.
That this relationship does not end well is no surprise to anyone but a teenage boy, but that it leaves such crippling scars on the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) has a great deal to do with how he responds to a later discovery about his beloved Hanna. Nearly a decade after her sudden and unexplained disappearance, Michael learns Hanna was a concentration camp guard, now on trial for mass murder. But he also uncovers a secret of which she is even more ashamed-a paralyzing secret that would mitigate her guilt and punishment. He, for unholy reasons, keeps this secret, sealing each of their fates in terrible ways.
Most of us do not imagine we could do terrible things to one another because we are thinking of our best selves and not of ourselves hampered by fear or fueled by anger. We do not like to think about the power of our terrors and resentments and how easily they push us to small and large villainies. Standing outside Hanna and Michael, it is easy to judge their separate cruelties. But once we see how their secrets kept them imprisoned, it is harder not to feel some compassion.