Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Nicholas Allanach
When attempting to understand the atrocities of Nazi Germany, it’s easy to blame the political thugs and propagandists of Nazism; unfortunately, such an understanding is not only limited because it overlooks the “little Eichmanns” but also fails to acknowledge the many “good” people who benefitted from the upbeat and positive aspects of National Socialism. The mind prefers to comprehend difficult subjects as clearly divided into “good” vs. “evil” binaries; however, this is rarely the case in reality. Accordingly (like any historical period), nineteen thirties Germany was made-up of average “good” people who may have not supported the Reich, but nevertheless, benefitted from the opportunity and wealth associated with this prevailing power structure.
“Good” (directed by Vicente Amorim and starring Viggo Mortensen) opens December 31st to ask - “Anything that makes people happy can't be bad can it?”
To answer this, “Good” follows the journey of a well-mannered literary professor John Halder (Mortensen), who selflessly and devotedly takes care of his neurotic wife, children, and senile mother. Exploring his personal circumstances, Halder writes a novel about compassionate euthanasia. At first, Halder is resistant to “join the party”, but after Halder’s novel is enlisted by the Nazis to be used as propaganda, he joins and soon becomes a very successful wealthy man. Meanwhile, Halder begins to entertain an affair with one of his students, who asks - “Wouldn’t it be nice to remove all these old dusty books from your shelf and have a fresh start?”
Indeed, Halder gets his “fresh start”: he leaves his wife, sends the kids off to “camp”, hires a caretaker for his mother and shacks-up with his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Aryan bombshell. But at what costs comes this “fresh start”? Although things are going “good” for Halder, he cannot evade the bad reality that is the increasing persecution of his longtime Jewish friend and psychologist. Halder tries to defend his decision to join the Reich to his friend as along the lines of “one must become a part of power to change power”. Ultimately, Hadler realizes he cannot change anything and that power has already defined who is “bad” and who is “good”.
What I found most compelling about Amorim’s “Good” was this subject of power defining who is “good” and who is “bad”, despite their actions, and what the individual can or cannot do to change it. The elite are often guilty of ignoring their involvement with the same violent and evil system of power they subsequently benefit from. The old adage - “will you bite the hand that feeds you?” comes to mind. Because of its subject, I don’t believe “Good” will do well at the box-office, nor among the critics. After all, it doesn’t take much for us to see that the same blind opportunism embraced by Halder as a Nazi can be comparable to the same blood-stained benefits many Americans benefit from on a daily basis. Just because we don’t see the blood of the slaughterhouse, doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur, but it makes it easier for us to eat the meat.
Some viewers might think “Good” is an awkward movie because it doesn’t let the audience off the hook, which I believe works in favor of the overall narrative. True, there is no catharsis - Halder is a part of the same system he once rejected, but now embraces because it is to his benefit. We leave the theatre still wanting him to reject Nazism or to turn into a total monster so he can be rejected; but there is neither. Thus, Hadler gives the appearance of being a “good” person, but, because his “goodness” is a part of a larger evil he can never be truly “good”. Accordingly, anyone who benefits from larger systems of power should also be able to relate to this story (I know I did) and will hopefully take-away from it an understanding that we’re all part of these systems and that our only hope of changing them (for the “good” of all) is by acknowledging our own involvement with these structures and admiting - the benefits we reap are often stained in other’s blood.
No one is "Good". There are choices that make us who we are.