United Kingdom/Germany, 2008
U.S. Release Date:
NR (Mature Themes, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker, Steven Mackintosh, Mark Strong
John Wrathall, based on the play by C.P. Taylor
Over the years, the tendency when incorporating Nazis into movies has been to use them as the kind of diabolical villain with whom it's difficult (or at least uncomfortable) to sympathize. The concept that there might have been Nazis in Germany during Hitler's time in power who weren't rotten to the core has largely been avoided as a moral quagmire into which filmmakers have not wanted to venture. Demonization is a more secure and profitable route. Safe Nazis - like the ones used by Steven Spielberg in his Indiana Jones movies - are bad Nazis. Adding complexity to the equation is a daring step that has only recently been attempted by a small but growing cadre of directors. Last year, there was Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. This year, in addition to Good, we have seen The Reader and Valkyrie. Unfortunately, more is needed for success than the desire to make a movie about a Nazi who bears a greater resemblance to a living, breathing human being than to the familiar caricature. Black Book, The Reader, and Valkyrie have it. Good doesn't.
Good tells the story of a "good" German who is seduced into the Nazi party because being a member offers greater opportunities for advancement and because he has an inflated opinion of how he might be able to influence policy from within. Of course, it's a slippery slope and, by selectively turning a blind eye to certain aspects of Hitler's agenda (in particular, the virulence of the anti-Semitism), he ends up becoming a part of the problem. The film can be viewed on a purely historical level or it can be seen as a commentary about current events (what happens when "good" people do not stand against the "evil" policies of their government). Regardless of how it is interpreted, however, the film's title cannot be seen as a commentary about its quality.
The story starts in 1933 as the Third Reich is in ascendency. Halder (Mortensen), a university professor, is invited to write a paper for Hitler about "the case for mercy death on the grounds of humanity." By accepting this offer, Halder embarks upon a path that will end with him divorcing his wife and marrying a much younger Aryan woman, Anne (Jodie Whittaker), and gaining an honorary SS commission. This does not sit well with Halder's best friend, a Jewish psychologist named Maurice (Jason Issacs). As things become more dangerous for Jews in Germany, Maurice approaches Halder for exit papers but the professor is unwilling to risk his own standing to save his friend.
For a movie that's supposed to be about the subtlety of the transition from repugnance to willful ignorance, Good is anything but subtle. Characters are two-dimensional with obvious, easily delineated personality characteristics. Complexity is only hinted at, never explored. Halder comes across as a dullard, in part because of the way in which he's written and in part because of the way the role is performed. It's hard to believe that a man in his position could have his head embedded so deeply in the sand (or, to put it another way, in a certain bodily orifice). There's a plot device (a delusion that Halder has of random people lip synching to a phonograph song) that is ill-advised; it's distracting and at times annoying. It also seems that only about half the narrative has been filmed. The movie ends abruptly in 1942, so events that occur after the conclusion of the war are absent. One could argue that this might have offered the potential for more compelling drama that what is provided here by director Vincente Amorim.
Since the conclusion of the war, numerous tales have emerged about survival in Nazi Germany by those who joined the party for a variety of reasons, those who fought against Hitler from within, and those who were marginalized during his time in power. Good lacks the complexity, emotional depth, and historical scope of many of those stories. There is moral ambiguity but it is presented in a facile manner, and the shock of recognition that closes the movie is too quick and too pat a resolution. Schindler's List provided an effective perspective of the turmoil afflicting a German citizen torn by a love of country and a horror of the Nazis' programs, and exhibited a deftness of touch that entirely eludes Good. Viggo Mortensen looks the part but never brings it home with great conviction or passion. I never believed in the character and that greatly diminished the film's ability to argue its ethical case.