I recall vividly the angst felt during my years in junior high school, when I worried obsessively over falling in love. The worry wasn't that I wouldn't find affection; it was the issue who. The pre-teen me had a theory: You can't choose with whom you fall in love.
It simply happens.
Falling in love with the wrong girl could be a disaster. If The One didn't love me back, I might lead a life of loneliness and misery. If the love of my life wasn't considered attractive by my peer group, I'd catch hell from my friends. I wondered: if the girl I'm smitten by isn't a nice girl, could I accept that and be happy simply because we were in love?
"What if..." It's the kryptonite of an obsessive-compulsive pre-teen.
Michael Berg (played wonderfully as a youth by actor David Kross) spends a lifetime working through the "what if's" of his teen years, and how they changed him. After stumbling into a sexual affair with an older, emotionally distant woman, only to be abandoned by her months later, Michael is emotionally wounded. He changes; the optimistic, care-free youth was transformed into a jaded, cold adult. During a chance encounter with Hannah, his former lover, a 20-something Michael balks at the opportunity to help her during a time of crisis in her life. He's ashamed that he once loved a woman who, as the story reveals, had participated in efforts to imprison and kill hundreds of Jews during WW2.
The Reader is a complex, tale that focuses on the complications of being human. Hannah was often the victim of circumstance, choosing this job or that job based on the fact she was illiterate. Shamed by being unable to read, Hannah did as her employers told her, was dependable and did her job well. Employed as a Nazi prison guard in wartime Germany, Hannah performed her duties as instructed. "We were told to keep order," she said.
And to her, that meant some people had to die.
Both Michael and Hannah seem like good people who under different circumstances would be very different people. But, the characters are what they are: the results of their environment, and the sum of their lifetime choices and experience. How they answered the "what if" question determined who they became.