CINEMA: by Len Phillips (reviewer)News Weekly
Shielding one's eyes from the truth - 'Good'
, May 16, 2009
reviews the film Good
(rated M) starring Viggo Mortensen.This certainly is the season for learning to understand Nazis. The Reader, which I reviewed a few weeks ago (News Weekly, March 21), is now followed by Good which is a step-by-step depiction of a man who incrementally becomes more and more absorbed into the upper echelons of the Party, even though he is really a "good" person and is portrayed as having no sympathy for Nazis whatsoever.
The lead character is John Halder (played by Viggo Mortensen), a German professor of literature. What starts his career on its upward trajectory is when he writes a novel on euthanasia that brings him to the attention of the Fuehrer himself. He is therefore asked to write a paper on euthanasia to explain to the wider community the Nazi position.
His novel was fiction and, anyway, he is good to his mother who is suffering from dementia and tries to care for her as best he can (but without her actually moving in with him and his new and younger very Nazi wife after he has divorced his less glamorous older anti-Nazi model).Euthanasia program
One must assume that if the Nazis liked his book, he must have offered up some words in favour of their euthanasia program. So, even if his novel was fiction and even if, good boy that he is, he is kind to his own mother, in the abstract he can certainly put on a righteous face for killing the old, feeble-minded, demented and insane.
And whatever his motives are - ambition, fear or passivity - he does end up writing the paper he is asked to write, even though it is pretty clear he could have chosen not to. We don't know what the paper says, nor does it matter. It is the deed alone that counts, and he authors the paper.
Later on, now an honorary member of the SS, he actually gets to see a mental asylum in which we can infer that the patients are sent to their deaths for reasons he has made clear in his published words. He has the tiniest little turn of conscience, but his career rolls on.
It rolls on into Kristallnacht
("Night of Broken Glass") of November 1938 in which he becomes part of the policing apparatus, while at every turn synagogues are being burnt to the ground and Jews rounded up.
He is disturbed, but all he can think of to salve his conscience is that he ought to do something to help his once best friend, a Jewish psychiatrist with whom he had served on the German front during World War I.
If he can save his friend by getting him out of Germany, all will be well, at least so far as his own soul is concerned. In the midst of the Nazis' rampage, he buys his friend a train ticket to Paris. This is how he shows to us in the audience that he is really not like all the rest.
The film ends with Halder being sent to Auschwitz, not of course as an inmate, but as an inspector. He is sent there by none other than the architect of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann himself. The Nazi higher echelons are looking for someone with an impeccable Party record, and Halder is that man.
At Auschwitz he sees what the Nazi ideology has wrought in all its horror and, poor thing, is upset by what he finds. The movie ends there with him in shock, tears in his eyes, totally disoriented by the scenes he is reluctantly being made to witness.
So let us ask this, not about the lead character but about the intentions of those who made the film. Are we asked to understand Halder so as to pardon him, because, as the French expression goes, to know all is to forgive all? Or are we supposed to look at this man and see that he, for all his pretensions as a university lecturer and scholar, is in fact as low a human form as we are ever likely to see?
I wish it were the second, but I think the intention is the first. We are supposed to come away thinking it could happen to anyone. We are all frail, fallen creatures. Let no one cast the first stone, etc, etc.
But in this way goes all morality. The film does not dwell on this, but the first step for Halder was his free decision whether or not to write a novel in which euthanasia is presented as an acceptable answer to certain moral questions. Absolutely culpable was he in every possible way.
Having something of a tortured conscience after joining the Party is merely the difficulty which possibly even the majority of Nazis might have had, in actually witnessing some of the cruelties they had set in motion.
As Halder is being helped by his wife to dress before setting out to patrol the streets on Kristallnacht
, he expresses some misgivings; but she, showing more insight into what he truly is, has him look at himself in the mirror. And there he sees looking back at himself a man in an SS uniform with a scarlet swastika on the sleeve.
He may still believe he is in the company of the good, but he is not. We in the audience can only see he is not because we have decided that being a Nazi is the essence of evil.
That was more than 60 years ago. With our communal moral compass now so comprehensively deranged - just dwell on modern attitudes to abortion or euthanasia to take the simplest examples - how can any of us tell who we see staring back at ourselves from inside the mirror?