Film Reviews 2008

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A Close Look At The "Good Germans"

By Nora Lee Mandel

31 December 2008

Source: Film-Forward

Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
Good takes a close look at the "good Germans" of the Nazi era, the ones who kept those meticulous records that have become such a trove for historians. It's 1937, and Professor John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) thinks he can just teach literature in his university ivory tower, even as other faculty members have lost their jobs and book burnings take place on the quad. He finds escape from his chaotic family - with a dilettante wife (Anastasia Hille) and ailing mother (Gemma Jones) - by writing a novel with a protagonist who eloquently convinces himself of the efficacy and compassionate use of euthanasia.

His book seems mostly forgotten by his peers, but the Fuhrer is a fan who is looking for just such a right-thinking academic for a scientific research committee. Though Halder weakly tries to point out he wrote a fictional morality tale, he agrees first to write letters, then reports on the ethics of euthanasia. Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Goebbels are among the powerful people who are impressed. They flatter him into joining the Nazi party and later the SS as good career moves, and Halder rises up the bureaucracy.

Mortensen, bland at first, almost disappears too far into his milquetoast academic to finally be aroused to act. Another fan of Halder's book is a beautiful, rich student Anne (Jodie Whittaker, the transformed cockney in Venus) who conveniently is more Aryan-looking arm (and bed) candy than his bothersome wife. One of the suave Nazis who convince Halder of his useful contributions to the war effort is Mark Strong in his third, completely different villain this year, after playing an Arab in Body of Lies and a British gangster in RocknRolla.

Halder's longtime Jewish friend and shrink Maurice (pronounced Morris by these British-accented German characters) is his opposite in personality, a brash bon vivant. Jason Isaacs is ruggedly passionate, and Maurice's line from the play that he doesn't look Jewish has been tactfully removed. A fellow army veteran, Maurice can still joke with Halder in 1933: "Where will you get all the Jewish cheesecake when you get rid of the Jews?" His struggle with his pride is that much more poignant when he is later reduced to proffering a piece of the dessert, begging his old friend to help him. The men are linked in tragic trajectories more clearly depicted here than in the play, until each ends up in a uniform that seals his fate.

Director Vicente Amorim's debut film, The Middle of the World, was a Brazilian road trip, and he opens up C. P. Taylor's dreamscape musical play into a road trip through a man's life. Budapest stands in very effectively for period Berlin, as it did in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Most striking is a severely neoclassical building for party headquarters that could very well have been designed by Albert Speer. That visual intimidation was suggested much more abstractly in Bernardo Bertolucci's similarly themed The Conformist, one of Amorim's influences here.

Recent Holocaust films still lean towards portrayals of the extreme sociopathic Nazi stereotype, like Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected. Fewer films have looked at the banality of evil that, person-by-person, constituted a state bureaucratic machine implementing the Final Solution, beyond the ruminations on corporate complicity in the recent Heartbeat Detector from France. Good is a worthy attempt to give that reality both an individualized credibility and a somber universal warning.
Last edited: 4 January 2009 16:01:52