— Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to review a movie is to make another movie; sometimes, all it takes is seeing a second movie about a certain subject matter to highlight everything that the first movie did wrong. Such is the case with “Good,” which deals with an intellectual who gets swept up into the Nazi party without ever thinking about the larger issues at stake; it’s a powerful film on its own merits, but it also points out how tame and impotent “The Reader” is in examining similar issues.
“Good” stars Viggo Mortensen as John Halder, a Berlin literature professor whose novel about compassionate euthanasia finds favor among high-ranking Nazi officials, including Hitler, in 1937. While John has never joined the party, and doesn’t exactly subscribe to their politics, he’s won over by their flattery, never bothering to consider the sinister implications behind their interest in the subject. And when it’s made clear to him that party membership is required to climb the ranks at his university, he has no compunctions about doing so.
John Wrathall’s screenplay, based on the play by C.P. Taylor, shows how one rationalization flows into the next for John, who sheds his wife (Anastasia Hille) for a young, pretty student (Jodie Whittaker) and even becomes a high-ranking officer in the SS, although John insists it’s merely an “honorary” title.
None of this sits well with John’s best friend Morris (Jason Isaacs), a Jewish psychoanalyst whose fortunes in Nazi Germany tumble as John’s star is on the rise. It’s John’s guilt about not doing more to help out Morris that brings “Good” to its gut-wrenching climax, a long, swirling shot of a concentration camp that’s one of the most powerful movie moments in recent memory. (Compare it a similar moment in “The Reader,” set in a now-closed camp so as to render the scene completely safe and dry.)
It’s always a challenge for actors to play a character who’s meek and passive; often, those qualities rub off on the performance, making the actor erase himself off the screen. Mortensen manages to make John a docile doormat in the first part of “Good” — he frantically tries to watch over his children, cook dinner, and tend to his ailing mother while his wife is immersed in her work as a composer — while still being magnetic and compelling.
Isaacs takes a role that could have been a pure literary device — the Nazi’s Jewish best friend — and fully inhabits it, making Morris funny, angry and vital. Steven Mackintosh (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and Mark Strong (the scene-stealer from “Body of Lies” and “Rocknrolla”) also make strong impressions as John’s new Nazi comrades.
Brazilian director Vicente Amorim understands, unlike so many other filmmakers who have tackled the subject, that the horrors of the Holocaust are enough to stir and disturb audiences; there’s no reason for the movie to clobber you over the head with one of history’s darkest chapters.
Even if everything in the film doesn’t quite deliver — there’s a clumsy, recurring Dennis Potter–ish motif of background extras occasionally lip-synching Mahler that serves only to set up a payoff later — “Good” manages to pull up a full bucket from a well that movies have visited over and over again.