Review - Good
9 April 2009
Sydney Morning Herald
Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
Good is the story of how a good man becomes a Nazi. It is based on a successful 1981 play by the late Scottish writer C. P. Taylor, who was a Jew and a socialist. He is said to have intended the play to be about anywhere and everywhere.
Good is about conscience, rather than Germans, and it offers a persuasive, uncomfortable argument.
Many recent German films about the war tend to be about Germans, in the sense of searching for a national character trait that explains it all. From making coruscating films about their own guilt in the '70s, they now often look for the good Germans - the ones who wanted to kill Hitler or save Jews.
A lot of these films point out how Germans suffered at the hands of the Nazis, too. Many reek of apologia, but to see the rise of Nazism simply in terms of race is to play the Nazis' own game. "The Jews were killed because they were . . . " "The Germans became Nazis because they were . . . " Just fill in your own stereotype.
Good takes a more tough-minded approach: it is a map of the small, understandable compromises that an ordinary man might make on the road to hell. That's a more confronting idea, because it is no longer just about Germans.
Viggo Mortensen plays Professor John Halder, a rising academic at a Berlin university. He is cultured, upright and opposed to everything the Nazis stand for - almost.
When he writes a book exploring the arguments for "an enlightened approach to euthanasia", he attracts attention from a powerful person. "The Fuhrer himself is impressed with your book," a man at the Reich Chancellery tells him. "He would like you to write a short paper on the subject."
The nervous professor blinks and nods his head, unsure of what to say. Halder believes there are sound arguments for enlightened euthanasia, as did many people in the '20s and '30s.
The Nazis are now the government, so that makes the request official. He already knows they are vindictive. What happens if he says no? What would you do?
Halder's home life is in turmoil. His mother (Gemma Jones) has dementia; his wife Helen (Anastasia Hille) has some kind of nervous illness. When beautiful young student Anne (Jodie Whittaker) throws herself at him, he breaks another personal rule, never to become involved with a student. Pretty soon she is his mistress and he has been made head of department.
A friendly young officer in the SS (Steven Mackintosh) is courting him to join them as an honorary member - no uniform, just a Death's Head ring. We only recruit the best, he tells him.
His friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs) is appalled. They are in bathing suits by a lake, enjoying the last summer before the war. The beautiful Aryan Anne is swimming while they talk.
Maurice is his oldest friend, a Jewish psychoanalyst, the one person with whom he is completely open. Earlier scenes establish a great bond between these men but Maurice realises that to get the promotion his friend must have joined the Nazi Party. John urges him to go abroad for a while, just to be safe. "You have no ties here . . . "
"I was born here," says Maurice, through gritted teeth. "I'm as German as those bastards . . . Sorry, you bastards."
The play has been smoothed out by the adaptation, although it retains some of the surreal elements of Taylor's original. Halder keeps seeing hallucinations in which groups of strangers sing old pop songs at him - a Dennis Potter touch.
The action also trips around in time, so that it's not always clear where and when things happen. That's OK, because it adds to the sense of growing chaos. The direction, by Brazilian Vicente Amorim, is nicely balanced between naturalism and a slightly heightened reality.
Mortensen ably carries most of the weight, with a minimalist performance. Halder is not a Nazi by temperament; nor is he simply weak-minded. He chooses to make small accommodations to the prevailing winds, nothing more. His ambition allows that; once he is with Anne, a much more active admirer of the party, she requires it.
If there is a weakness in this story, it is that a man of his intellectual stature would be happy with a woman of her vacuous, if ruthless, disposition, but I guess that's the point. He is less than he thinks he is; his realisation of that gives the film a very powerful ending.
Last edited: 21 April 2009 14:44:12