Reader, The: Casting Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes

Kate Winslet–First Choice

From the start, novelist Schlink had imagined actress Kate Winslet for the pivotal role of Hanna Schmitz, the 36-year-old tram worker who has an illicit affair with a teenage boy and later is revealed to have been a concentration camp guard hiding yet another terrible secret.
“Kate Winslet was always my first choice,” says Schlink. “She’s a sensuous, earthy woman, exactly like Hanna.”


Winslet explains “I’m a relatively slow reader, but I just could not put it down and finished it in one day,” she recalls. At the time, however, Winslet was only 27 and felt far too young to tackle the part. By the time director Daldry reached out to her in early 2007, however, she had matured enough to handle the physically demanding role, in which the character ages from a strong, sexual woman in her mid-thirties to a bedraggled matron in her late sixties.  


Working with director Daldry was exhilarating for Winslet, who describes their “collaborative relationship” as “almost as if we’re from the same tribe.” Adds the actress, “He has this unstoppable energy, and such a profound love for the story. As well as a very clear idea of how he wants the story to be told, he’s very happy for others to share ideas and come up with what’s best for the scene.”

David Kross

For the role of Michael Berg, the youngster whose life is forever changed by his relationship with Hanna, Daldry selected two actors to cover the character’s dramatic thirty-year story arc—relative newcomer David Kross and veteran Ralph Fiennes.


The Reader marks the third film for German actor Kross and his first-ever role in English, a language he perfected while making the movie. Daldry was determined to find a German youth for the role of Michael, and auditioned Kross repeatedly to make sure he was the right choice. Initially, Kross’ mother felt the acting job might interfere with her son’s schooling, but she agreed to let him take the part if his year-end grades were strong—he studied especially hard, passed his courses with near-perfect results, and eventually landed the role.


Kross worked as much as seven hours daily with dialect coach William Conacher not only to learn his character’s dialogue , but also how to read Horace in Latin, and Sappho in Greek, in addition to other literature he recites in the film.  “The challenge to me as a dialect coach was how to help a German cast speak English in a way that the audience would believe they were speaking their own language, and then find a way to slot Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes into it,” recalls Conacher.


Because the storyline relies on depicting the sexual relationship between Hanna and Michael, the film’s entire shooting schedule was structured so that Kross—who was just 15 when first cast—turned 18 before any of the bedroom scenes were shot.


The disparity in years between middle-aged Hanna and young Michael was one of the most controversial aspects of the novel — yet the story would simply not work any other way. “Hanna and Michael are 36 and 15 respectively so that they are truly of two generations,” explains Daldry. “Any closer age difference would change that.”


Indeed, during her televised book club discussion of “The Reader,” Oprah Winfrey directly addressed the characters’ age difference and its importance to the story. “Horrible things happen to people in many books I read that I consider to be part of the literature landscape, but I don’t disown them or not embrace them because their stories are not comfortable for me,” Winfrey said. “You can love the book without loving the relationship. I’m not condoning the relationship… Why couldn’t the boy have been older Well, it would have been a completely different story.”

Ralph Fiennes


Playing the older Michael Berg who, many years later, is still trying to come to terms with his boyhood affair, Fiennes was initially attracted to “The Reader,” because of the way the script balanced complex emotional issues. “The questions it asks about blame, judgment, guilt, love, sexuality are all quite complicated, but in the end it’s a very humane story,” he says. “The mark of a good screenplay is often that it seems simple, but the simple scenes include huge things. The beauty of this screenplay is that, in sentences which seem like an ordinary conversation, the undercurrents are full of different meanings and layers.” 


All three actors only rarely crossed paths, since Kross and Fiennes played the same character at different times, and Fiennes and Winslet share but a single scene together.


Winslet thought Kross was “perfect” for the role of the young man who matures before our eyes. “David is remarkably similar to Michael Berg—he’s a very serious person, incredibly professional and sensitive. He’s willing to try things and wants to learn and grow.” Fiennes also praised David Kross, the actor who plays a younger version of his character. “We don’t quite look like each other, but I understand we may have similar qualities as actors, so I can see why Stephen put us together,” explains Fiennes. “He is very natural, intelligent and aware, with a gentle humor that seems to float just beneath the surface.”


Both of the actors relished their time with Winslet as well. “I didn’t know anything about her really,” admits Kross, who only saw the actress in TITANIC before beginning THE READER. But “working with her was not good, it was great,” he says, noting that, like him, Winslet started acting when she was quite young. “She’s very down to earth and very experienced.” Agrees Fiennes, “Kate is a fantastic actress. All of her work is full and rich. She brings her intelligence to the set and she probes and asks questions. She’s magnificent.”

Bruno Ganz


Cast in supporting roles and smaller parts vital to the production was a virtual who’s who of German acting talent—“one of the greatest ensembles of German actors in recent history,” says Daldry, proudly.  American movies fans will likely recognize Bruno Ganz (WINGS OF DESIRE) in the role of Michael’s law professor, Rohl, as well as Mattias Habich (NOWHERE IN AFRICA, DOWNFALL) as Michael’s father. 

Other top German actors in the film include Susanne Lothar as Michael’s mother, Karoline Herfurth as Michael’s university love, Alexandra Maria Lara as young Holocaust survivor Ilana, Volker Bruch as his fellow law student, and Burghart Klaussner as a war crimes judge.  Also in the film are Martin Brambach, Marie Gruber, Margarita Broich, Carmen-Maja Antoni and Hannah Herzsprung.