Finally! I had hoped to see the movie Good in theaters last year but inexplicably it never appeared. This past week, I viewed it on DVD. It was well worth the wait. As I watched, it reminded me of two other extraordinary movies: Taking Sides and Mephisto.
The main character, John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), also the point of view character (we see and hear only what he sees and hears), is a writer, a university professor of literature who has written a novel which comes to the attention of the Nazis in 1933 Berlin. They summon him to the Reich Chancellery without telling him the reason, so he arrives with trepidation. But, they loved his novel, says Minister Bouhler (Mark Strong), and what’s more, they’d like him to write a paper that explores more deeply the ideas on euthanasia that he’d touched on in his novel. And they’ll pay him! I’m tempted to say here that the offer of payment to a writer can make even the most onerous project worthwhile, but that’s not always true, and especially for a politically-engaged man like Halder. However, this is 1933 Berlin, the Nazis are a crazy bunch, and Hitler the most insane of them all, and one has to protect one’s life, family and interests to prevent the crazies from turning against one. Unfortunately for Halder, Bouhler was a talented fisherman and hooked him with ease without Halder even feeling a twinge of pain or warning. This scene is so beautifully played and lit for intense threat and suspense that it was uncomfortable to watch.
Other characters comment on Halder throughout the story, describing him as a “good man,” someone “who always does the right thing.” And indeed, he does try to do the right thing, but as was true of so many during the 1930′s, it never occurred to him that the Nazis were not “good” or people “who always do the right thing.” They were good for Germany at that time. They seduced artists and intellectuals into their ranks in much the same way Bouhler does Halder, each seduction customized to the individual. Even though Halder tells his best friend and therapist, Maurice (Jason Isaacs), that Hitler is a madman and the government’s policies are crazy, he doesn’t believe that they could attack their own population. But Maurice is Jewish, and his experience of the Third Reich is juxtaposed with Halder sinking farther and farther into an abyss he doesn’t see. It’s difficult to see all the angles of a situation when you’re in the middle of it, and we certainly have the benefit of hindsight now, but at the time, no one among the German general public dreamed of what was coming. They’d elected Hitler and he was turning the country around, lifting it out of the Weimar grave.
During the U.S. presidential election campaign of 2000, no one dreamed of what was coming — the Patriot Act, renditions, two ill-conceived wars, and the amassing of trillions of dollars of debt. At the end of President Clinton’s presidency, we enjoyed a national budget surplus, prosperity, and the respect and admiration of our allies and others. Why would that change?
And so it was in the America of my Perceval novels. The New Economic Party’s takeover occurred gradually, one election after another, until their power base extended deep into the country’s neighborhoods. Their message or party platform was all about national security and economic prosperity, to insure America’s position as a superpower in the world, and to end the threat of terrorism. They began as a movement connected to one of the major political parties and eventually split away to become a separate political entity. And no one sees it coming because each American is focused on his job, his family, his next vacation or iPhone, and what to do for fun on Saturday night.
We are as human and imperfect and lacking in omniscience as the people in Germany during the 1930′s. But they gave us a gift: we can look back at the time, the circumstances and what they did wrong to avoid making the same mistakes. This is the real gift of the movie Good. It is to C.P. Taylor’s credit for writing the original stage play, and director Vicente Amorim and screenwriter John Wrathall for their adaptation, and to all the actors for bringing the story to life on the screen. Thank you to them all. I recommend this movie highly, especially to view it before November 2….