Jodie Whittaker and Viggo Mortensen in Good
I saw the film Good a couple of nights ago which deals with denial in Germany in the thirties as a way of talking about how easy it is to fool ourselves ‘anywhere and everywhere’ – as Scottish Jew C.P Taylor, the author of the play on which the film is based, put it. The method of the film is to portray the Nazis as perfectly ordinary – no harsh German accents, but rather cultured English ones – and then follow the development of the main character – Professor John Halder a liberal college professor played by Viggo Mortensen – in a downward spiral to hell that he only comprehends at the end. The film uses heavy irony. For example, at one point our professor’s wide eyed mistress asks him, “Anything that makes people happy can’t be bad can it?”. In the background we hear the sounds of a Nazi rally while sun drenched little girls in summer frocks skip across the screen clutching gladiolas to wave at Der Fuhrer. It is like the film is reaching out of the screen trying to shake the contemporary audience awake. Reading some reviews after seeing the film I discovered that the film’s indirect suggestion that denial and self delusion can occur ‘anyplace and everywhere’ had resulted in quite mixed reactions. An interview with Jason Isaacs, who plays the professor’s ill-fated Jewish friend, in the LA Times proposes an explanation:
“It’s amazing the different reception this film has had when shown to different audiences,” said Isaacs, months later, by phone from Israel, where “Good,” starring Viggo Mortensen, had just played at the Jerusalem Film Festival. “For people like me, Western liberals, it takes imaginative effort to see themselves in Viggo’s part because we all like to think we’d hide people in our attic, you know, join the partisans and protest these civil rights abuses right under our nose. They recognize the perils of not raising our voices when the Geneva Conventions are thrown aside.
“But when you show it to people who lived under Communist rule in Eastern Europe, they don’t expect him for a second to do anything. They know what powerlessness feels like. So they’re watching a different story, about lack of hope and about pragmatism.”
I can say truthfully that I have been a liberal college professor who has experienced powerlessness sufficiently to know that moral decisions made in the abstract are a lot easier than those made under duress particularly where self interest is involved. I was therefore genuinely surprised at Steven Holden’s review in the New York Times entitled Aligning with Nazis, Blindfold Tightly in Place. As the title implies, he pans Good from the outset, and wonders how “a liberal, mild-mannered college professor” could become a Nazi.
How and why this could be is never satisfactorily addressed, unless you accept that he’s a moral vacuum, in which case why write a play about such a nonentity? The movie dances as skittishly around its subject as its protagonist blindly ignores portents of the impending Holocaust.
Although he makes reference to the production of C.P. Taylor’s play elsewhere in the review Holden seem determined not to see the obvious intent of both the play and the film – that denial and moral failure are to be found in all times and in all places including, most especially, in ourselves. I have not seen the play, but the film never lets up even crediting the Hear No Evil Sound Studios in the closing titles. But Holden makes it absolutely clear that he can not make the small step the film asks us to take to be alert to similar dangers in the present. To paraphrase Mr. Holden, unless you accept that a film critic for America’s leading newspaper could miss the film’s obvious irony, you have to wonder if he pans the film because he does not like its discomforting message. He has to keep the film in the past and ignore that today’s world contains many of the same potentials – internal and external, individual and collective – that are explored in the film.
Halder views Nazism as a distasteful phenomenon, not to be taken seriously, that will soon play itself out. Even when a book burning takes place outside his window, he finds a positive side to it. At every turn he appears to be either so naïve or so stupid that even after the transport of Jews is well under way he remains in near-total denial.