The movie starts with Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) making breakfast at his apartment while a naked girl comes out from the bedroom, puts on a robe and starts to enjoy the breakfast. She asks what he is going to do today, and he says he has a date with his daughter. The lady finishes the breakfast, gets dressed and leaves. Michael seems careless, while he walks over to the window to look outside. A train passes with a young Michael Berg inside (it’s a flashback).
Young Michael is on the train, watching the train person collect tickets. The setting is in the 1940’s Germany, just before the Second World War. Michael is a tall and good-looking 16-year-old boy, and here he does not look like he is feeling too well. It is pouring rain outside and he is on his way home from school. Michael stops just outside an apartment and throws up on the floor, and then he sits down by the apartment. Then we see a woman (Kate Winslet) in her uniform come by and sees the vomit, so she gets a bucket of water to flush it off. She wips Michael’s face and gives him a hug and tells him he will be fine. She walks him home and leaves.
Michael is at home, and his parents and siblings are worried. The doctors come and say he has the fever, which will force Michael to stay home for a couple of months, and it is contagious.
Flash forward to present day, Michael is in an apartment, where boxes are still lying around and nothing seems to be unpacked. He heads to work and drives off. Michael is a defense lawyer and we learn that his just-divorced wife is now the state prosecutor. They look at each other and look away before the trial begins in the courtroom.
Flashback to young Michael, who looks healthy and energetic now and still stays at home. He argues with his mother saying he wants to go back to school, and his father says ok. Michael then heads to the apartment where the woman lives and brings a bouquet of flowers to her to thank her. The woman is not pleased and she says she needs to change and asks Michael to wait outside. While waiting outside, Michael sees through the crack of the door of the woman putting on her stockings and sees her partially naked. The woman notices too, and Michael freaks and runs out the door.
The next day, after school, Michael comes by to the apartment again to apologize. He waits for the woman to get off work. The woman is a train person who collects tickets on the train, and her hours are very routine, so Michael is always able to catch her when she gets home. This time, she asks him to bring her some coal from downstairs for her stove. Michael does it, but gets himself all covered in charcoal. When he goes upstairs, the woman says she cannot let Michael go home looking like that, so she draws him a bath (in a very small apartment where there’s only a see-through curtain for the bathroom.) She asks Michael to remove all his clothing and she starts to wash the clothes for him while he bathes.
When Michael steps out of the tub, shy and looking away, the woman comes behind him with a towel and start to wipe him, and then we see that she has removed all her own clothes as well and is standing naked right behind Michael. She kisses Michael and asks him to do things slowly, and Michael obliges and they have sex. After, Michael runs home with a big smile on his face. He goes home and his parents are worried sick of how late he returns, but all that yelling was not able to wipe that smile off Michael’s face.
The next day, Michael ditches class early and runs to the apartment. The woman is already waiting for him and they start to undress and they have sex again. This time, Michael asks what her name is, and she tells him it is Hanna Schmitz. They do this for a while, but this time, she notices a novel in Michael’s schoolbag, and she asks that he read to her, as foreplay, before they have sex. There was the Odyssey, The Lady with the Dog, and many great novels. Hanna never reads them herself, but she only listens to Michael reads it out loud to her every time.
One day, Michael asks Hanna to go on a trip with him; they ride bikes to villages and have a lot of fun. They are mistaken as mother and son but they start to kiss in public, which freaks a lot of people out. They come across a church with kids rehearsing their choir inside. Hanna is mesmerized; she cries and cannot stopped smiling. Michael looks at her from the outside, falling deeply in love with her.
While at school, it was the summer, and Michael seems to be really popular with the girls, but Michael never even give them a look. He still runs off school early even when classmates and friends have birthday plans for him. But today, Hanna is not in a good mood. Hanna’s boss told her that she has been great at her job and she is getting a promotion, which means she will be working in an office pushing papers from now on. Hanna seems unhappy and goes home. She does not feel like having sex, and Michael is a little ticked off because he said he just gave up a birthday party for her. They argue a bit, but go on to have sex and do some more reading. The next day, when Michael comes by, Hanna is gone. Hanna has removed all of her belongings and moved away, without even leaving a note for Michael. Michael cries.
Next, in a classroom, we see that the professor has selected six students from the class to be under his wing. The professor will take these six law students in and out of courtrooms and listen to prosecutions and defenses and have discussions. Michael is one of the six students, and there is a very beautiful young girl in the six people as well, and she seems to keep making her moves on Michael. Once again, Michael does not care and continues to focus on his studies.
One day, the professor takes the group to a big trial that involves the prison guards of Auschwitz and a survivor of the concentration camp. The war is now over this, and all Nazi affiliates are being trialed and sentenced for their actions. While chatting with his colleagues in the audiences, Michael hears the name Hanna Schmitz being called to the stand, and he drops his pen and stands up. It was Hanna, after all these years, she has aged a little, but still has that same beauty that is still tormenting Michael.
Hanna was one of the prison guards at Auschwitz. And we hear one of the survivors, the granddaughter of one of the prisoners describe what the guards did to them during the war. First they mentioned that Hanna would take all the little children at night and asks them to read to her. Then they said each of the six guards would each choose ten prisoners to be sent to their deaths each time there were new arrivals. And last of all, the guards once had all the prisoners locked in a church for shelter while on the move, but when the church was bombed and caught fire, the guards did not unlock the door and they let 300 prisoners burned to death inside.
Hanna is the only one defending their actions of that night, saying she was a prison guard, and her job was to guard the prisoners. And that night if she had unlocked the door it would have been chaos, because six of the female guards will not be able to control all of those prisoners. This got the court riled up, and people begin to shout and even the other guards begin to gang up on Hanna. The other guards claim Hanna was the one in charge and she asks everyone to write the same story. The court had the original report of that night, and they want to see Hanna write something so they can match her handwriting. While Hanna’s lawyer are debating over this ridiculous proposition, Hanna has a pen and a blank paper put in front of her. Before Hanna even picks up the pen, She says she admits to all her actions and says she is responsible for all lives of all 300 prisoners that night.
Michael hears this and walks out of the courtroom, and he begins to think back of all the time that Hanna asks him to read to her. Michael then realizes that Hanna cannot read, and she is very embarrassed and even ashamed of that fact. Michael tells the professor that he knows information that could actually help Hanna’s case. The professor only tells Michael that he has an obligation to come forth and say it if that is the truth, Michael is too scared to do it, or maybe he is too angry at Hanna leaving him and still making him miserable after all these years. Michael keeps quiet.
During the sentencing day, Michael is holding in his tears while he sees Hanna go up to the stand. The court sentences all the other guards to four years for being accomplice to the death of 300 prisoners, and Hanna gets life imprisonment. Michael breaks down, and runs out. At night, he goes to the beautiful colleagues room and they have sex, only to see Michael walk out right after it, and says he likes to sleep alone.
Michael goes to visit Hanna and the guards called Hanna to the meeting room along with all the other prisoners and their families. But Michael changes his mind and leaves before going in the room, leaving Hanna confused.
Flash forward to 20 years later, when Michael is taking his daughter to see his mother. Michael tells the mother that he is getting a divorce with his wife and he asks her not to worry. The mother is very disappointed, saying how can Michael not even come for his dad’s funeral but comes all the way to tell about his divorce.
Then we flash forward to present day. Michael cannot sleep one night, and he begins to unpack. He sees all the books that he had kept, including the ones that he read to Hanna back in the old days. So he digs out his voice recorder device and begins to read the books and record them on tapes. Next we see Hanna receiving the package in prison, and she cried when she hears Michael’s voice on the tape. She begins to look alive again and look forward each week to all the tapes that Michael sends to her.
Then one day, she comes across one recording of the novel, The Lady and the Dog. Hanna then goes to the prison library and asks to check out this book. In her room, she listens to the tape and starts to read it along and circles the same word that she sees and teaches herself how to read and write. She begins to write letters to Michael, first in couple of words, then more sentences and then long letters, but Michael puts them away and never replies.
Then one day, the warden gives Michael a call, saying that Hanna is due for her release on good behavior, and since Michael is the only person that sends things to her, she thought Michael would like to know a few things. Someone needs to take possession of her when she gets out. Hanna will need a place to stay and a job to survive in the outside. Michael hangs up and is tormented. But he then decides to pay a visit to Hanna in prison.
While meeting Hanna, who is not completely old and sad, Michael tells her that he has everything set up for her on the outside, and that she has nothing to worry about. Hanna smiles, but then she reaches out her hand and wants Michael to hold her hand. Michael disregards it and tells her that he will pick her up tomorrow. Hanna’s smile disappears, and she walks back to her room deeply saddened.
Inside her room, she piles up all the books that she had read, and stacked them up on a desk. Hanna then steps on them and reaches up for a rope and hangs herself.
Michael, after another sleepless night, is starting to look forward to the idea of being with Hanna again; after all, she still keeps him up at night. Michael brings flower to pick Hanna up the next day, and the guards inform Michael of the bad news.
Hanna did leave a letter, she said that she had saved a lot of money till now, and she keeps them in a tiny little jar with images on it. Hanna wants the granddaughter of the survivor to have the money, and she mentions to say hi to Michael. Michael breaks down and starts to cry.
We then see Michael visiting the granddaughter of the survivor and he explains what Hanna wishes but the lady did not care. Only until the lady sees the little jar that Hanna had kept the money in, she begins to settle her anger, and says that she used to keep all her precious belongings in a jar just like this before the guards confiscated it. The lady kept the jar right by her night stand, and she suggests that Michael donate the money to a Jewish charity in Hanna’s name.
Then we see Michael with his grown-up daughter and he says he wants to take her somewhere. Michael takes his daughter to the church where he and Hanna took a trip to back then with the choir rehearsing inside. And outside the church, we see a gravestone with Hanna’s name on it. Michael then begins to tell the story of how he encountered this woman to his daughter.
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