John Halder is a mild-mannered professor who wears his spectacles crooked, does the cooking for his wife, lives at the call of his mother-and aids Nazi genocide.
Good, unrated at this writing but containing violence and profanity, turns the Holocaust narrative around by telling the story of an ordinary German, his small negotiations for survival and success, and their sum. It unsettles the audience because it shows that the most horrific human sin may be the weakness to do the right thing, not desire to do the wrong.
Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is good-not heroic but more conscientious than most, with the pedestrian flaws of passivity and impatience. He thinks Hitler is a little crazy, so insane that Halder expects the mania to blow over before he has to choose between his job and the Nazi Party. To escape the diminutive significance of his life with a distracted wife and an aging mother, he writes a novel about a man who kills his terminally ill wife because he loves her.
The Nazis see in the book a possibility to further their agenda to help "unfortunates with incurable handicaps" and enlist Halder as a "consultant in humanity," because "the question of humanity" is central to their eugenics plan. He wavers when they call him brilliant, joins the Nazi Party, leaves his wife for a lovely student (Jodie Whittaker), and gets a promotion. The story begins to look like that of a man who shakes off passivity and takes control.
Then his choices begin to control him as the consequences for choosing differently get graver. His moral debilitation progresses as each plot crisis tests his compromised character: When his Jewish friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs) begs for help, when he puts on the Nazi uniform to supervise Kristallnacht, and finally when he inspects a concentration camp. Mortensen's character dwindles believably from the brawny hero he usually plays into a man who's good enough to see his weakness but too feeble to make a change.
The director, Vicente Amorim, is a Brazilian with the strength that he's somewhat detached from the history. It may be disconcerting to portray a Nazi sympathetically; but it's more unsettling that the story is not so much about a Nazi as it is about a man who could exist anywhere, at any time, in any empire, including America.
In a question and answer session I attended at the screening, Isaacs said the movie is an "ethical thriller" and that he sees in Halder's life "the own ethical minefield I inhabit every day." You can find yourself rationalizing each decision Halder makes along with him. Is it really wrong to join a party you don't quite believe in? Was it wrong to put on the Nazi uniform? Is it evil to simply enable evil?
The answer to all is yes, a truth Halder confronts in the movie's climax. Isaacs said the film is about the difficulty of drawing a line in the sand but it also reminds him, "There is, somewhere, a line in the sand." It is morality's painful paradox: Right and wrong may be ambiguous, but they exist. The line between innocence and guilt is hard to see but it's there, and a moment of weakness can tip us-any of us-from innocence to guilt.
Good opens in New York and Los Angeles Dec. 31.
(Note: This movie review did not appear in the print edition of the Dec. 27, 2008, issue of WORLD, but is offered online as a Web Extra.)