Good: Vincente Amorim’s Version of Taylor’s Famous Play, Starring Viggo Mortenstein

Using one man’s moral decline to express the fate of an entire nation, Germany after the rise of Hitler to power, Vicente Amorim’s new movie “Good” is simply not good, a failed attempt at an emotionally devastating drama on both the personal and collective levels.

The movie is based on the acclaimed play by C.P. Taylor, which was named one the “100 Best Plays of the Century” by the National Review after its world premiere in London at the Donmar Warehouse in September 1981. The play then switched to Broadway, where I saw it early on in its lengthy run.

Unfortunately, the narrative begins well, but then quickly escalates to an unbelievable melodrama, ending on such an offensive and preposterous note in a sequence set in a concentration camp that it’s bound to be dismissed by serious critics and viewers. (As the body of literature and film about the Holocaust continues to grow, there are more and more expectations and restrictions on artists in terms of what permissible, acceptable, and believable when depicting such a monumental catastrophe).

It’s to bad that the film is such a flop, as Viggo Mortensen gives a vigorous, honorable performance as John Halder, a good, decent man and citizen. It is from his subjective POV that we see the unfolding socio-political events circa 1933-1945, which destroy the lives of all those dear to him, in one way or another, including former wife, ill mother, best friend (who’s Jewish), colleagues and peers.

The story commences with Halder as an enlightened German literature professor in the 1930s, exploring his personal circumstances in a novel advocating compassionate euthanasia; his mother is terminally ill. When the book is unexpectedly enlisted by powerful political figures in support of government propaganda, Halder finds his career rising quickly in an optimistic current of nationalism and prosperity. Yet with Halder’s change in fortune, his seemingly inconsequential decisions jeopardize the people in his life with utterly devastating, irreversibly tragic effects.

On stage, you accepted more easily the stylized production and the parallels and contrasts between the drama’s personal and collective arenas. On screen, however, with the fierce and piercing eye of the camera, “Good” the movie feels fake and disingenuous too.

The first reel is rather compelling, pulling you into what promises to be an intrguing personal-political saga. Though basically a good human being, Halder faces a series of personal professional problems, which are suddenly “resolved,” when he agrees to do a small service for a powerful political figure. What begins as a gesture spirals out of control, escalating in the process to unbearable results.

Indeed, though no single action of Halder’s is particularly harmful in and of itself, the accumulated effect of rendering a number of such services in exchange for a number of increasingly compromising rewards, takes its toll. After leaving his loyal wife and children, he courts a student, who later becomes his wife.

To put is bluntly, the play is about a seemingly “good” man, who one day wakes up to discover that, like countless other German citizens, that he has become a Nazi, a citizen who conforms, and benefits from his compliance– at a price.

The subject has been done before–to better effects. Clearly, director Vicente Amorim owes a major debt to two great works, Bernardo Bertolucci¬ís masterpiece “The Conformist” and Istvan Szabo’s Oscar-winning “Mephisto.” Like those two earlier works, “Good” is also a film about a man so intent upon succeeding in a corrupt and decadent society, that he himself becomes corrupted, first without realizing what he’s doing and then with his complete consensus.

Unlike those distinguished filmmakers, however, Amorim is unable to heighten the visual elements, sets, costumes, and lighting, to emphasize that the saga is also symbolic, a Faustian parable about conscience and consequences.

What was undeniably provocative about “Good” the play was the way it posited a moral dilemma and forced viewers to take a stance, that is, to consider what their own reaction would have been had they found themselves in Germany in the 1930s, with their very profession and livelihood at stake.

Admittedly, it’s not an easy task to translate to the big screen a play of ideas, which depicts macro history as a nightmare into which an average anti-hero sleepwalks. Like “Man for All Seasons,” the principal themes of “Good” are the conflicts between man¬ís ideals and his limitations, or to use a more overt Freudian jargon, between a man’s id, ego, and superego.

However, the challenge to dramatize what’s going on internally without having Halder actually turn to the audience and explain himself is not met by the director and screenwriter, even if their decision to keep the play’s non-linear structure should be applauded.

Shot entirely on location in Budapest in 2007, the film boasts nice if not lavish production values, courtesy of director of photography Andrew Dunn, production designer Andrew Laws, and costume designer Gyorgy Szakacs.

“Good” world-premiered to mixed-to-negtaive critical response as a Special Presentation at the 2008 Toronto Film Fest, and I fear that the theatrical prospects of the film, when released by ThinkFilm in December, are rather dim, with slightly better chances for the later DVD version.