Review: 'Good'

Viggo Mortensen plays a literature professor who is gradually shifting from being a 'good' German to becoming a kingpin of the Nazi machine.

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    Transformed: Viggo Mortensen plays a ‘good’ German who becomes a kingpin in the Nazi machine.
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A very different kind of Holocaust movie is "Good," based on a celebrated play by C.P. Taylor about how a "good" German, a bookish literature professor named John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), becomes a kingpin in the Nazi machine.

The essence of the movie is philosophical rather than dramatic. It asks: How is it possible that so many "normal" people collaborated in such barbarism? Director Vicente Amorim, who was born in Vienna and later settled in Brazil, doesn't do much to "open up" the play. Along with his screenwriter, John Wrathall, he organizes the drama into a series of playlets – duets mostly. This sort of thing was likewise a problem with "Doubt," a far better movie that also resembled a thesis for multiple voices.

The thesis in "Good" is not especially well argued. I'm not saying that we should come out of this movie knowing exactly how "good" Germans became bad. The unknowability of such a transformation is probably beyond the powers of a dramatist – or at least of C.P. Taylor – to convey. But "Good" contributes very little to a conundrum that has occupied historians and psychologists for half a century.

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As with "Doubt," "Good" limits each of its scenes to a single purpose. Life lessons are doled out incrementally; salient points are underlined. We are never allowed to discover anything for ourselves. It's didacticism posing as cogitation.

Mortensen cuts a striking figure – it would be hard to look more Aryan (unless maybe you're Rutger Hauer). But he's not terribly believable as a mousy prof. It's no surprise when he is finally fitted by the Nazi Party for a brown shirt, but the inevitability of the transformation is too pat. So are the scenes with John's anxiously aggressive wife (Jodie Whittaker). At times "Good" seems to be making the point that the Holocaust was caused by harpies.

The only sequences I found compelling were between Mortensen and Jason Isaacs, playing John's Jewish psychiatrist friend Maurice with whom he served in the trenches in World War I. Maurice's growing realization that his best mate is becoming, albeit unknowingly, a monster, is creepy in a high-toned "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-meets-"Schindler's List" sort of way. The ending of the film is powerful, too, if confusingly staged, but by this time this 90-minute movie feels twice as long. Grade: C.

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