Oscar nominee Kate Winslet brought her Holocaust drama
to the 59th Berlin Film Festival Friday, one of several pictures this year on harrowing World War II themes.
Based on the international bestseller by German novelist Bernhard Schlink, The Reader tells the story of 15-year-old Michael in postwar Germany who begins an affair with a mysterious train conductor in her 30s (Winslet).
After their trysts in her ramshackle apartment -- and later in their relationship, before they make love -- Michael reads to her from the great works of Western literature.
It only becomes clear to him much later, when he is a law student, that she was illiterate -- and a former Nazi death camp guard.
Winslet said presenting the humane sides of her character along with the monstrous was a "difficult balance". "I had to make her a human being," she told a news conference.
"I had to make her a woman who was capable of great love and affection and warmth as well as the vulnerability and the shame that she feels. And she also had to be a woman who had at least some level of courage, certainly when she starts serving her prison sentence."
The film, which is not in competition at the festival, received warm applause from an audience of reporters and critics from Germany and abroad.
Despite mixed reviews in the United States since its release, The Reader has received five Oscar nominations including best picture and best director for Stephen Daldry.
Winslet won a best supporting actress Golden Globe in January for her role and could claim her first best actress Oscar later this month for her riveting performance.
The picture has raised eyebrows for several steamy nude sex scenes with a teenager but Winslet brushed aside charges that they had been gratuitous or inappropriate. She said she had taken her young co-star, German actor David Kross, under her wing.
"Quite a lot has been made of the love scenes and made of David's age and he's 18, he's a young man, he's extremely professional and he's absolutely brilliant in the film," she said.
"For me, it was all about making sure David understood exactly what was going to be happening whilst we were shooting those scenes because I've been in the position that I think Daniel was in -- really not knowing what it was going to be like, how many people would be in the room.
"But the truth is, at the end of the day, it is part of this job and it's a very, very important part of this love story so we just got on with it really, and dare I say it, we actually kind of had a laugh."
The Berlin Film Festival has frequently featured pictures that tackle World War II themes in its 59 years and 2009 is no exception.
"Adam Resurrected" by Paul Schrader will screen during the 11-day event, starring Jeff Goldblum as a circus clown who saves himself in a Nazi concentration camp by entertaining the commandant.
His life depends on his demeaning performances as a dog for the officer, while his own wife and daughter are sent to the gas chambers.
Later in Israel, he is committed to a mental institution for Holocaust survivors and encounters a boy who suffered horrific abuse and humiliation and the two form a unique bond.
The German production "John Rabe" features Ulrich Tukur and Steve Buscemi in the true story of a Siemens executive working in China when the Japanese invaded in 1937, unleashing a horrifying assault on the civilians of Nanking.
Rabe worked with other members of the expatriate community to create a safe zone where some 200,000 people were able to survive the massacre.
The themes have drawn comparisons with "Schindler's List" which until Steven Spielberg's 1993 film was a little-known true story of an industrialist who managed to save more than 1,000 Jews from death in the camps.