The Reader begins as a riddle of sorts, with an emotionally shut-off German attorney, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), kicking a beautiful woman out of his apartment before the sight of a tram inexplicably takes him back to 1958. As a teenager Michael (David Kross) begins an illicit relationship with a conductor named Hanna (Kate Winslet), who is every bit as icy as the adult Michael, a dominatrix who forces her young lover to read to her before she lets him touch her naked body (and Winslet spends most of these scenes very naked). Now, the assumption would be that Hanna, a woman twice as old as young Michael, is responsible for the miserable adult who can't even communicate with his daughter, but that's part of the increasingly complex riddle that director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) weaves out of Bernhard Schlink's best seller.
When Hanna suddenly vanishes, leaving not even a note, the story jumps ahead to Michael's law school years. His class is taken to a war crimes trial where several female concentration camp guards have been accused of mass murder following the publication of a survivor's memoir. Hanna is one of these women, and even on the stand she remains an enigma not willing to reveal what has made her this way. Whereas the movie serves, in a way, to riddle out the reasons for the adult Michael's inability to communicate, Hanna is a mystery that cannot and will not be answered. Does she feel guilt over what she did in those camps? Did she understand what she was doing when she showed her prisoners to the gas chambers? Did she ever love Michael, or was his just another existence to decimate? Her sense of self-preservation won't even trump her desire to keep what's inside her a secret.
The Reader's riddles, the lives of these two characters through the decades--and the movie clunks across four--are supposed to serve as a meditation on Germany's post-war conscience as the two generations, represented by Michael and Hanna, come to terms with their country's role in WWII and the Holocaust. Considering the production's pedigree--there are enough Oscar nominations among the cast and crew to sink a small boat--and the subject matter, you assume the movie's importance. That's precisely the mistake Daldry makes--his direction is so self-important, so cooly confident that his work matters, that The Reader turns into a smugly intellectual exercise that sounds amazing when you begin to discuss it, but is excruciatingly dull and as cold as Michael or Hanna to watch.