Possibly the most hootable scene in a mainstream movie this year occurs in “[movie id="274912"]Good[/movie],” when [movieperson id="44866"]Viggo Mortensen[/movieperson] looks in a mirror and discovers that — hey! — he’s become a Nazi. The time is 1937; the place, Berlin; and for the previous hour or so, we’ve watched Mortensen’s character, a mild-mannered German academic named John Halder, being effortlessly led over to the dark side by SS political recruiters. Since he’s been hobnobbing with people named Goebbels and Eichmann, we are in no doubt about what he’s become, and his shock seems preposterous.
That’s not the really priceless part of the scene in question, however. It’s set in the bedroom he shares with his hot young wife, Anne ([movieperson id="418742"]Jodie Whittaker[/movieperson]), a former student who’s become a Final Solution groupie. They’re standing side by side; nearby is a full-length mirror. Turning his head to look into it, Halder sees himself decked out in a sleek SS uniform, complete with jackboots and swastika armband, and is totally, bafflingly horrified. (Has he forgotten putting this outfit on?) Anne, however, also gazing into the mirror, has a different reaction. Sinking to her knees in a transport of tailor worship, she proceeds to unzip his jodhpurs and … so forth. This plays like a lost scene from “The Night Porter,” which makes it the movie’s only amusing interlude.
The picture is adapted from a 1981 stage play by C.P. Taylor, and the story’s purpose is to demonstrate how it is that good, intelligent people can be swept up into appalling political movements. This is a serious subject, and it might be more thought-provoking here if Halder weren’t such an oblivious boob. We’re shown that he’s a university literature professor (he’s been outfitted with the slicked-down hair and wire-rim spectacles that denote bookish enterprise in period pictures of this sort), but he’s awfully dim. Although Proust is one of his academic specialties, he accepts with little more than a shrug the news that the Jewish author’s work has been banned from the school syllabus. When a Nazi censor (the slyly insinuating Mark Strong) expresses admiration for a novel Halder wrote about the upside of euthanasia, the professor is bashfully flattered. When he’s asked to write a paper on the subject for official use, he says, well, sure. When he’s awarded “honorary” SS membership a bit further on, he figures, what the hey. As National Socialism takes hold in Germany, Halder sleepwalks through the blossoming Swastikas (Hitler’s self-described emblem of anti-Semitism) and the proliferation of Nazi goons and graffiti. And when his best friend, a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice (Jason Isaacs), warns, “We’ve put the country in the hands of a lunatic,” Halder’s response is, “Give it time. Hitler’s a joke. He’ll never last.”
Seventy years after the fact, we know better, of course. But at the time, so did the many people of various ethnic and political tints who fled Germany and the soon-to-fall Austria before the Nazi clampdown made escape exceedingly difficult. The movie wants to point out, correctly, that it wasn’t only knuckle-draggers who elected to stay; and if Halder were actually smart, instead of just extensively credentialed, the picture might offer something to think about. (Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ odious propaganda minister, was a literary scholar with a legitimate PhD — what was his story?) But Halder is a nitwit, a pre-moral being — he could be seduced into anything. Mortensen, having no alternative, plays him as the overeducated lunk he is (it’s an unusually dull performance by such a fine actor). Strong and Isaacs bring an enlivening tang to their characters, but the movie is becalmed in the tasteful glow provided by prestige-project cinematographer Andrew Dunn. And the way Brazilian director Vicente Amorim connects the familiar plot dots, the picture becomes essentially a roadmap to historical terrain we already know all too well.
“I never thought it would come to this,” Halder says at one ridiculous point. But since serious thought of any sort was never a part of his personal syllabus, why should we be surprised? He’s a man with no tragic dimension. The banality of evil is a rich subject; the cluelessness of same, not so much.
Check out Kurt Loder’s review of “Defiance ,” also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Good.”
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