This article was first published on Damaris’s Culturewatch website, and is used with permission.
© Copyright Tony Watkins, 2009
How does an ordinary, decent man become part of one of the world’s greatest evils? This enigma is at the heart of Good, and has been pondered over and over, especially with regard to the Holocaust. Within just a few years, the Nazi regime exterminated almost four out of every five Jews living in German-occupied territory during the war, as well as many more from groups they found objectionable. The moral responsibility for this cannot be laid at the feet of a small minority – Hitler, Eichmann, Mengele and the men who willingly worked with them – whom we easily dismiss as monsters. No, it goes much further, as was explored to some extent recently in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. In what ways are the majority of ordinary citizens, who had no connection with what happened in the camps, implicated in what happened? Good, based on the acclaimed play by C.P. Taylor, suggests that everyone who simply goes with the flow is culpable.
The film begins in 1937 with Dr John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), a professor of literature, visiting Berlin to see officials in the Nazi Party. He is interviewed by Herr Bouhler (Mark Strong), chair of the party’s censorship committee about some views which he had expressed in a novel on the right to life – ‘a matter of personal importance to the Führer’. Halder is understandably nervous.
In flashback, we see some of the events which have led to this interview. After the Nazis come to power in 1933, they banned books by Jewish, communist or ‘degenerate’ auhors, and burnt piles of them. Halder is dismayed to see this going on outside the lecture theatre where he is teaching, and even more so when his head of department comes to tell him that he may no longer teach Proust if he wants to keep his job. Naturally he concedes for the sake of his career; this political interfering in the curriculum is surely not much more than a temporary inconvenience. It raises an important question for the viewer: Is this the beginning of a process of disempowerment and persecution against which he will vainly struggle, until he is called to account by Herr Beuhler? Or is it the first of many small compromises? We are kept guessing, but while we viewers know how things will develop in Germany over the ensuing years, at this point, Halder himself has no idea of what is ahead. He just wants to protect his job. He certainly has no intention of joining the Nazi Party – unlike his father-in-law with whom there is some tension over the issue. He and his best friend Maurice (Jeremy Isaacs), a secular Jewish psychoanalyst, are scornful of the party and its ideology, and assume that things will soon return to normal.
John Halder has other problems which consume his energies away from the university. His wife Helen (Anastasia Hille) is a brilliant pianist, but suffers from some nervous disorder which makes her almost incapable of coping with the demands of being a housewife. Unusually for his time and place, Dr Halder is happy to take care of the domestic responsibilities when he comes home. Helen knows what an unusually caring man her husband is, but she doesn’t realise that the pressure is growing within him. Another burden is his mother (Gemma Jones) who lives with them because she suffers from dementia. When a pretty young student, Anne (Jodie Whittaker), shows an interest in him, Halder is flattered and entranced. When he confesses to Maurice that he is preoccupied by thoughts of her, his friend gives a typically psychoanalytic response: ‘Taking refuge in fantasy might be a rational response to an irrational world.’
At this point, the film takes us forward in time again, to his interview with Beuhler who asks him to write a paper setting out the same argument for euthanasia as in the novel. ‘It is essential,’ Beuhler says, ‘that humanity should be at the centre of our work.’ The party’s flattery of Halder is juxtaposed with Anne’s, and he soon allows himself to be seduced by both. Halder is clearly now making compromises which affect the core of his life, not just his work. He is on a slippery slope, and Good powerfully explores how a succession of steps, many of which are in themselves insignificant (though having an affair is not remotely trivial), can become a journey to hell.
He is repeatedly shown as being unsure of what he should do, but his wife tells him to, ‘Have a little faith in yourself and do the right thing. You always do.’ This may once have been true of John Halder, but is now far from the reality. He does have faith in himself, in the sense that he makes his own choices without consulting anyone, except occasionally Maurice. But his choices are entirely based on what is expedient for him, what will make life easier for him, and never on what is morally right. At one point, Freddie (Steven Mackintosh), his new best friend in the SS, encourages him in his affair, saying, ‘If you’re with us, the old rules no longer apply.’ Halder is a weak man and asks, as if seeking some absolution, ‘Anything that makes people happy can’t be bad, can it?’
Good is a clever, well-structured morality play with a central character with whom one easily identifies, allowing us to feel the difficulties of his situation and the strong temptations that come his way. While Halder’s world is safe, we understand why he thinks that no real harm will come of his actions. He is a good example of the dangers of making decisions on the basis of short-term convenience or happiness, since the longer-term consequences are hard to predict and may be disastrous. There are moments when Halder knows what he should do, but doesn’t do it because it’s not a good time for him. But, as Martin Luther King insisted, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ Halder is not simply weak, he is cowardly.
Halder’s personal circumstances may be improving, but Maurice’s are deteriorating (in fact, the Nazis banned psychoanalysis in late 1933, so his continuing presence at this stage is a little anachronistic). Maurice is delighted at Halder ‘seizing the day’ and moving out of home to live with Anne, but is disgusted when he realises that his friend has joined the party. Halder’s accommodation with the Nazis drives a wedge between them, and things become worse as the party makes things increasingly difficult for Jews. It takes the upheaval of Kristallnacht in November 1938 to make Halder realise just what has happened to him.
One stylistic feature from Taylor’s play which screenwriter John Wrathall retains is the musical interludes. From time to time, Halder thinks he hears the people around him singing extracts of Mahler. These moments make Halder question his sanity, but it is wrong to assume that he is insane, and therefore not in full control of his moral faculties. Rather, these moments reveal something of the pressure and tensions he is experiencing, and they increasingly exemplify his moral madness.
The moral decline of this once-decent man becomes increasingly apparent. And the film uses his moral trajectory to reflect that of the entire nation. Just as he sleepwalks into a nightmare, so does the nation. It is chillingly fascinating to see how this man who believes in freedom ends up contributing to its destruction. A man who begins by loving his wife and mother self-sacrificially becomes a man who only loves himself and fails to act in love to those who need him. A man who begins with teaching about ‘clarity of perception’ from Proust ends in a fog of confusion. Good is a powerful, but bleak, exploration of moral cowardice, which has a great deal of resonance for our own day. C.P. Taylor’s premise was that this story is not just about a particular people at a particular moment in history, but about anyone – and everyone. It is a stark reminder that we must not stand by or make numerous small compromises while liberty is eroded. It challenges us to think seriously about what governments do, to discuss the morality of their actions, to resist ignoring what happens if it doesn’t impact us directly. Very recently we have seen the publication of US Government reports justifying the use of controversial interrogation techniques. The argument is that the ultimate goal of the state’s security warrants these extreme measures, which many consider to be torture. Clearly, security is a very important issue. Nevertheless, the question of whether this is an acceptable compromise, or whether this is a denial of the moral principles for which the United States has historically stood is a vital, though contentious, one. For myself, I find it deeply troubling that ethical principles lose out to the consequentialist argument. John Halder’s first moral compromises were, he believed, the way to freedom – a small price to pay for his greater good. We need to be constantly asking the question of whether our governments are stepping onto the same kind of slippery slope. Good’s greatest challenge to us is to resist compromise, to do what is right, not what is expedient.