Good: A Mild-Mannered Morality Tale

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Larry D. Horricks / Good Films Ltd.

Viggo Mortensen in Good

When we meet John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) he is chaotically cooking a meal with the assistance of his scampering children. Meantime his wife is banging out classical music on the piano — as she does for hours every day — while his incontinent and half-mad mother insistently cries out for help from an upstairs bedroom. Halder, who is a novelist and literature professor, is obviously in need of a little discipline in his life and, since this is Germany in the 1930s, there's plenty of that available.

Once upon a time Halder wrote a novel that made a rather romantic case for euthanasia (a beautiful woman is assisted toward death by her devoted lover). The book has been discovered by the Nazis, who, of course, believed in killing not just Jews but also the insane, the mentally deficient and the hopelessly crippled. Hitler himself has read and approved Halder's work, the writer is told. Could he perhaps write a little essay summarizing his views — nothing hysterical, something of literary quality, for distribution by the state?

Well, why not, says the mild-mannered, somewhat unworldly writer. And if, eventually, he is required to join the SS and start doing other chores for the Nazis, what of it? At first there is nothing onerous in his duties — and they carry obvious benefits. Lots of swell parties are part of the deal. And he is appointed head of his department at the university. Best of all, his blossoming ego permits him to undertake an affair with one of his students (Jodie Whittaker), which leads him to a divorce from his distracted wife and then into a new, happy marriage. The downside, at first almost imperceptible to him, is the growing persecution of the Jews, personified by his best friend, Maurice (Jason Isaacs), a psychiatrist, who waits too long to attempt his escape from Germany and discovers that Halder, for all his connections, is at best a half-hearted collaborator in his failed, attempt to flee. By the time Kristallnacht comes around, Halder is awash with regrets for his betrayal of his best instincts, but there is no longer anything he can do about that. When we see him last he is an anonymous figure in a fancy uniform, swallowed up in the Nazi's killing machine. (See pictures of movie costumes.)

Morally speaking, everything about Good is tidily correct. But it is more a predictable parable than a full-fledged narrative. Directed academically and unimaginatively by Vincente Amorim, and based on a play by C.P. Taylor that was respectfully received in the 1980s, it also feels like old news. We know that in bad times human beings have a propensity to behave like — well, human beings. That is to say, only a heroic and visionary minority has the gumption to resist evil. Most of us, like Halder, just go along with whatever system is in place. Indeed, the compromises he is obliged to make are generally speaking so minor that he scarcely notices them until it is too late, and their cumulative effect finally becomes inescapable. It is interesting to see Mortensen, normally an expertly rambunctious actor, hiding behind his wireless glasses, playing a dim and fussy man, but to place antiheroism at the center of a film is to invite a kind of indifference that vitiates our involvement and concern for its outcome — which, in any case, is obvious almost from its outset.

And that says nothing about the larger issue inherent in Good. We dare not forget the Holocaust. Before and since, there have been genocidal events that are comparable to it in scale and savagery. But never have we witnessed a nation with a civilization as high as Germany's succumbing to such carefully calculated inhumanity. Nor has the mystery of that nation's behavior during the Nazi era remained so insolvable, so beyond the reach of art and scholarship, so beyond the reach, certainly, of earnest, inept works like Good, which remains, like most such works, on the anecdotal fringe of the problem. In film, the Holocaust has become a topic addressed by journeymen writers (Good was adapted by John Wrathall) and directors who seem to think that the importance of the subject will enhance the inherent modesty of their own gifts. But this is not so; we emerge from their movies frustrated by their failures to grasp and shake our souls. I would like to propose a cinematic moratorium on this subject: a thoughtful silence, rich in remembrance, but lacking in the desire to leap forth a couple of times a year with slack, distant, by-the-numbers products like Good.

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