There is a moment in the middle of Istvan Szabo’s “Sunshine” where John Neville angrily confronts his Jewish relatives after the Holocaust. Ralph Fiennes is tearfully recounting how his father was frozen to death in a concentration camp, when Neville wonders out loud why they didn’t do something. Sure they had guns, but there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews and only thousands, if not hundreds of Nazis. It’s a striking moment because it was the first time I had seen a picture involving the Holocaust that dared to portray the Jewish victims as anything but hapless victims of an inexplicable evil. Of courses, in hindsight its easy to ask why more didn’t rise up against the Nazis. Sure, thousands of Jews in the camps would have been killed in the process, but as long as one of the dead wasn’t you, why not?
I bring up “Sunshine” because it remains a better, more striking fable that deals with many of the same issues as Vicente Amorim’s “Good”. Based on an allegedly classic 1981 play, this small-scale drama attempts to capture the feelings that many ordinary Germans had as the Nazi party slowly took complete control of the motherland. It’s a fascinating idea that will always resonate: how do you succeed in a corrupt government without becoming corrupt yourself? And if you do see evil all around you, do you sacrifice your own comfort to speak out, or do you just sit back and hope someone else martyrs themselves instead of you? But the ideas at the heart of the film outweigh the execution of the film itself.
Some plot – In 1930s Germany, literature professor John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) sees a sudden rise in good fortune when his novel advocating euthanasia ends up being used as government propaganda by high ranking Nazi officials. As his personal stock and potential wealth rises, Halder finds himself torn between succeeding within a political party that he does not agree with, or facing the consequences of shunning the current governmental establishment and losing any chance for success and financial security.
Again, this is an idea that is always worth exploring, the struggle of (to quote a recent high-profile tent-poler) ‘trying to be decent men, in an indecent time’. But the fatal flaw of the story is that our protagonist isn’t just decent, he’s also gloriously naive. Time and time again, he tries to reason with his Jewish friend, Maurice (Jason Issacs), claiming that Hitler’s reign is just a fad and that things will blow over soon enough. This may have been a reasonable position for an educated man to have in the mid 1930s, but John clings to this belief well past the point of self-delusion.
If this were a story about self-blindness, about a life lived without peripheral vision, then that would be one thing. But John Halder is presented to us as an educated and mentally sound man, someone who genuinely believes that the Third Reich is just a political party that will eventually be voted out of office. It is difficult to tell a story about a morally sound man who struggles with his humanity in a totalitarian regime when, for the majority of the movie, said hero is completely oblivious to the actual actions and true intentions of said regime.
Story flaws aside, the film looks splendid, and the acting is fine. Mortensen does righteous anguish as well as anyone, and Jason Isaacs provides a solid counterpoint, both as a foil and a direct consequence of Holder’s bad judgment. The scenes between the Isaac and Mortensen are easily the film’s highlights. And the picture ends on a jaw dropping five-minute shot that renders the fantastically terrible as plausible and frighteningly mundane.
“Good” is an interesting idea, thoughtfully acted and visually intriguing. However, it is nearly undone by a lead character that fails to represent the general idea that the film is allegedly about. Maybe it worked better as a play, but this theatrical adaptation only barely succeeds as a template for after-film conversation, rather than as an entertainment in and of itself.