As far as movies about Nazi Germany go, “Good” belies its title and sits fidgeting on a terrain somewhere between so-so and inoffensive. But 15 years ago a story like “Good” would have been called daring — even revolutionary — for it ventures beyond caricatured depictions of monstrous Nazis and the horrors of concentration camps to examine the process by which a supposedly “good” man joins the Nazi Party. The film was released in the United States in 2008 to a lukewarm reception; lead actor Viggo Mortensen has since then moved on, and films such as “The Reader” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” have given us windows into truly extraordinary stories from the era.
Why the Japanese distributor has chosen this time to show “Good” remains an enigma — the timing could hardly benefit box office. On the other hand, “Good” may strike a chord with many Japanese: It is essentially the story of an ordinary nice guy who makes the wrong choices, is gathered into an evil system, and is then too indecisive to correct his mistakes. The scenario is achingly familiar to us, from World War II to the rupture of the bubble economy and most recently in observing the government dealing with the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis. Painful.
Mortensen plays John Halder, a literature professor in 1930s Berlin. John is a devoted dad to his young sons and an obliging son to his mother (Gemma Jones), who is ailing from senile dementia. His uncommunicative and neurotic wife (Anastasia Hille) won’t help — she’s in need of medical attention herself and is basically blind to everything but her piano.
To release the stress and tension of his private life, John dallies with the sizzling Anne (Jodie Whittaker), a student from his class who turns out to be just as demanding as everyone else. But John is a good man and he deals with it all, sounding off his inner turmoil to longtime best friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs) who is conveniently a psychiatrist and unfortunately a Jew.
The word “good” for describing John is often misleading — he can hold everything together, good and bad, when it is a matter of whining to Maurice or writing fiction based on his own family travails. Interestingly, his latest work is about a man commending the use of euthanasia as a means of putting his sick, complaining wife to eternal rest. But when the Third Reich calls him in to praise his work and extends an invitation to turn Nazi, John’s equilibrium begins to unravel.
He’s told by the top brass at SS Headquarters that the Fuhrer himself has read John’s work and is intrigued by his proposed method of inducing the death of an unwanted family member. John tries to explain that he hadn’t exactly meant that — not really. Then the next instant, he’s signing on the dotted line to become an official Nazi Party member, for whom doors will open and privileges will accumulate.
Having sold himself out, John is at least relieved to think that his position at the university is now secure and his money worries have disappeared. When Maurice hears what has happened, he rightly accuses John of pandering to Adolf Hitler; John rationalizes it by saying that he can instigate changes from within. “Hitler will be gone in two years,” smiles John. “And everything will be all right.”
Fate (and the film) doesn’t ask all that much from John. Mortensen has played the virile hero in plenty of films (“The Lord of the Rings” and “Eastern Promises” among them), but in this he’s pensive and reluctant, his big, taut muscles trapped inside the heavy black suit of an academic.
There are opportunities for redemption — when Maurice asks him to secure a ticket out of Germany, John hesitates; the moments he spends thinking about what to do cost Maurice dearly. And John finds that he has miscalculated the speed of Hitler’s ascent and the power of his promises to the German people, the majority of whom flock to the Nazis in the sincere belief that better times are just around the corner. Far from instigating any political changes, and unable to help even a single friend, John’s true colors are exposed: He’s scared and weak and fond of his own skin. In other words, he’s just like everyone else.
The ordinary man, however, is not powerless. When Roberto Benigni came out with “Life is Beautiful,” many were enthralled by his portrayal of humanity rising above the lunatic violence of Auschwitz to seek beauty. “Good” can be described as the antimatter to that film’s substance. Nothing lifts John out of his self-construed sandbox of self-deception and stubbornness (he still thinks that Hitler may be ousted within a few months), and “within” himself there is no hero screaming to be let out. No way is this a feel-good film, but it’s instructive, and eerily reflective of our times.