Movies about WWII are easy to find. Pick your focus: D-Day (Saving Private Ryan), the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), the battlefront in Europe (A Bridge Too Far) or Asia (Bataan).
But what about the lead-up to war, the “dirty 30s” and Hitler’s seduction of and imposition on Germany? Is there a movie that shows, step by clever step, the co-opting of a German who initially thinks Nazism is both silly and temporary?
Good (2008) is that film.
It’s 1934. Books are burnt, threats are made, but few anticipate the horror to come. Certainly not Berlin academic John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), a decent man who lectures on English literature and has written his own novel, an obscure story about a man who kills his slowly dying wife out of compassion. With his own family – musician wife, two children, and disabled mother – John leads a relatively banal existence threatened only by a student, Anne, who comes on to him.
That existence is wholly altered when John is summoned to the offices of a Nazi official who asks him to prepare a paper based on Halder’s book, arguing for the moral, empathic response that mercy killing really is.
Rather, that the Nazis want it to seem, so they can rationalize the killing of “the unfit”.
John writes the paper, which is well received by the elite. Joining the Nazi Party becomes obligatory, so he does – it’s just an honorary thing. Until it’s not, until the night he’s called on to don his uniform and patrol the Kristallnacht streets. Later, he receives promotion, a new apartment (stripped from a Jewish former colleague), honors, privileges.
This is a quiet movie. It shows just how subtle change can be, and how small actions lead to hard choices between right and expediency. Choosing expediency leads to darker choices. Each time, John opts for the easier path, the path his handlers indicate. Initially a faithful husband, as he enters farther into the Nazi trap he feels he has the right to an adoring mistress in Anne. Then an apartment “for writing”. Then a divorce. Yet even his ex-wife is proud of him, impressed by his rise.
This gradual rise contrasts with the step-by-step fall of John’s best friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs), a man he fought beside twenty years ago in the trenches of WWI. We don’t learn Maurice’s surname until halfway through the film, but he is a joking, sardonic, confident man who over time – despite being a decorated veteran – is stripped of his privileges, rights and dignity. He becomes a non-human in part because of John’s actions, yet he’s still capable of outrage, which he unleashes to John and toward him.
Maurice becomes the filter through which John could, if he wished, see his life as a sell-out. He refuses. His friend is in pain, but what can John do? It’s the system. Things will be all right. Early in the film, he advises Maurice to cut and run, spend a year or two outside Germany until things calm down. Maurice protests: “This is my country!”
It’s only 1937.
In a later scene, John finally uses his status to demand the rail ticket to Paris that Maurice has begged. He races through the streets and arrives too late. Maurice has disappeared.
Isaacs is wonderfully acerbic and pragmatic, terrific contrast to Mortensen’s understated, subtle portrayal. At each level they play off each other with expertise and panache. Good was originally a stage play – its transposition to film is brilliant, losing none of its verbal power and gaining a visual vocabulary of pre-war Berlin.
Good is not an easy film, but it’s an excellent one.