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Good, but sobering viewing...
on 19 June 2009
John Halder (Viggo Mortenson) is a respected professor of literature, who once wrote a novel about compassionate euthanasia. He now juggles his mother suffering from TB and dementia, his neurotic piano-playing wife, 2 boisterous children, a female student he's very attracted to, book burning, and Proust being eliminated from his curriculum. He regularly escapes life for beer-fuelled heart-to-hearts with his friend, Jewish psychoanalyst Maurice (Jason Isaacs), whose early concern over Hitler is brushed aside: "Hitler's a joke... he'll never last."
When Hitler's chancellor summons Halder to write a report on the "case for an enlightened approach to mercy death on the grounds of humanity" there's only one problem... Halder isn't a member of the party. In a sudden sweep, Halder becomes an "honorary" member of the SS, with all its subsequent privileges, separates from his wife, and begins a new and successful life - albeit at the expense of his friend, and his conscience. As Hitler's Germany takes shape, Maurice's situation becomes increasingly unstable, and when he finally comes begging for help to leave the country, Halder is placed in an impossible position.
The movie, based on a stage play by C P Taylor, moves slowly, as Halder is assimilated into the role of unwilling Nazi; and though he never stops doing "good", he finds himself on dangerous, ethically ambiguous ground, as he is forced to weigh up his friendship with Maurice against his own survival. The climax of the movie has a harrowing, nightmarish quality, as Halder's conscience, which inserts itself very occasionally in the form of music, as members of the cast break out in fragments of song (reminiscent of Dancer in the Dark), leads him to face the consequences of his decisions.
Mortenson, ever serious and versatile, plays his role with excellent subtlety, letting his character do the talking. The mainly British supporting cast, headed by Isaacs indignant with rage, are also convincing in a way that foregrounds the bleak reality of their respective situations. 1930s Germany is authentically reproduced visually, though not in the language, which will always be a point of contention for moviemakers and movie viewers alike.
Good is a movie that asks its audience to consider notions of goodness and complicity, and how far, by doing nothing against the system, Halder has in fact allowed the evil regime to establish itself and flourish. This isn't an original idea, by any means, but watching it happen still makes for a very sobering viewing experience.