Feature Interview By Brad Balfour
During a snappy roundtable with a few journalists, actors Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs double-teamed to express their thoughts about their disturbing new film, Good, based on the acclaimed British play by CP Taylor. Set during the Nazi era—like several other movies this season—this feature describes a relatively banal man's acceptance into pre-war Nazi society of the 1930s. As he rises in status, we see how the seductive power of fascism can compromise someone slowly until they are in so deep it's too late to repudiate it.
German literature professor John Halder has written a novel advocating compassionate euthanasia. When the book is unexpectedly read by Hitler and his key advisers, Halder is enlisted to make an argument for managed euthanasia which is ultimately used as a rationale for the Final Solution. The meek professor suddenly has a new career as an honorary S.S. officer.
With Halder’s change in fortune, his seemingly inconsequential life is imbued with an allure and power he hadn't experienced before, leading him to leave his wife for a beautiful, status-hungry grad student (Jodie Whittaker) and ultimately betray his Jewish friend, the charismatic Jewish psychiatrist Maurice (Jason Isaacs), who ends up in a concentration camp.
There's no better actor than Mortensen to express this transformation from an apolitical professor living within his world of words, to someone who enjoys the prestige and power of the Nazis initially, only to be appalled at the consequences of his tacit support of their methods. Ever since he made his mark with A Walk On The Moon, Mortensen has wrestled with some complicated characters in two David Cronenberg films (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), and Appaloosa, and played the heroic and enduring Aragorn in the The Lord of The Rings trilogy.
As a foil to Mortensen's character, Veteran British actor Isaacs (he's in the Harry Potter series) provided his character Maurice with the trajectory of a man once on top of his world declining precipitously as he is destroyed by the pernicious system around him. And both bonded through Vicente Amorim's sympathetic direction (who popped in at the end of the interview and is pictured here with Viggo and Jason).
Q: This movie has two distinct character arcs that intersect. The challenge, to get those things in sync—as if they're happening simultaneously—is tough; can you explain the dynamic of getting those rhythms right?
VM: It's true. We do cross and take on different roles as Halder builds up this new persona for himself. He was always the one who was like “Let's go have a beer,” then all of a sudden the roles change. They don't exactly swap, but they're different.
JI: The power dynamic shifts enormously. For me that was one of the great and interesting things about this story—that it wasn't about governments or armies or Nazi generals. It was about two ordinary guys who are best friends, and a friendship that I recognize: someone who's much larger than life, someone with a great big hunger—a womanizer, a drinker, just kind of an eater of life—who has this friend with a rather dull marriage who basks in his shadow.
Then these outside circumstances so change their lives that in many ways the power dynamic is reversed. Playing Maurice as he gradually deflates was, I thought, very interesting and a very human journey, to see someone stripped of all their dignity like that.
Q: Conversely, Viggo, you play this character whose ego is built up, and then given responsibilities that he doesn't want to shoulder as a result. But then you do shoulder them and you feel regret. There's this back-and-forth process that you have to get right.
VM: Well, some people have said to me, "This is a very passive role compared to others you've played recently." My answer is: it's active in a different way. He's passive to a point, but then he starts building up this persona and buying into it. He's in a lot of denial. Then he's actively accepting and even pursuing this new new sexual life, being part of some sort of subsection of the elite of the country he lives, and he's liking a lot of it.
Whether he's being completely honest with himself a lot of the time or not, he's accepting it and saying, "Yes, I like it, I’m doing it. And in fact, I think I won't go see Maurice tonight for a beer because I don't want to deal with him looking at me and having to think about it."
JI: You think he believes that argument that you made to me, that if more good decent people like us joined the [Nazi] party we can dissolve the lunatic fringe?
VM: I think he's told himself that. He believes it, but he's forcing himself to believe that. If we were to stop and think everything we're doing wrong, then these personalities we construct—and we all do it to varying degrees—are dependent on who we meet, what the circumstances are, and what the climate is. We present ourselves in slightly different ways [according to the circumstances].
My character has really gone to great lengths to create this [persona] who no longer stutters, who looks people in the eye, who is a person of importance now. He knows he doesn't belong there, what the fuck is he doing there? Excuse my language...
He knows if he were to go and have a drink with Maurice now—like the scene when they sit on the bench and are talking—it [would be] difficult.
JI: It's like when I was saw Bono and [Bob] Geldof talking about working with [George] Bush in Africa. They said, “You know, he is in power and he does have the money and I can make him do good.”
VM: I can see the argument. I think that's the strength of the movie. You can look at this person and see he's intelligent and thoughtful. When [the Nazi professor says to Halder] "We don't teach Proust," he’s sarcastic about it.
For the record, [my character is] saying "I don't like it." But he goes along with it. He wants to keep his job, so he goes along with it: "Yeah, fine." I think people identify and understand the idea of if you're in the system, you can make changes to it. But if you're out of it, it's easy to sit on the sidelines.
Each person knows themselves. How far have I gone? Have I arrived at the point where I know I'm really doing the wrong thing? You really know that yourself, if you force yourself or are forced to examine it. To some degree, that's what this story is about.
JI: For me, it wasn't about whether he was doing the wrong thing. It was, “How would you do the right thing?” In the last eight years, we've been saying we don't agree with torture. But have we done anything about it? Are you ultimately powerless, [so] you get on with your life and the people who love you, and your work? I personally found it very hard to point the finger [at anyone in this movie].
VM: The fact that there are no easy answers doesn't mean you don't do something, even if it's going to fail.
JI: That's the message you get at the end of the story. There was a line: it's the easiest thing to do, to say there is no line. You're powerless and there's nothing you can do, other than vote once every four years. But there must be some action you can take, no matter how hard and complicated it is to find.
Q: We know from the outside the real apocalyptic legacy of the Nazis, but they're on the inside, so they don't know it.
VM: Well, that's the strength of this movie. It doesn't work from hindsight, like almost all movies on the subject, good and bad, and books about the period. There's this scene when the character Anne says [the swastika] makes people happy, so it can't be bad.
You see these kids running along with swastikas made out of flowers. In fact, there was this kid during the break on the first day of shooting, this little Hungarian kid about five years old, playing with the little swastika flag. [He was] sticking it in the sand castle, really having fun with it. There's a still they took of that; it's really quite disturbing, but he's having a fun time. What people forget is that in the 1930s that was simply the flag of Germany. It didn't have all these Holocaust connections [it has today].
When the Olympic [athletes] competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, they competed under that flag. It was simply the flag of the party, and the swastika was a symbol that had come from other places – India, the Navajo. It was a universal symbol meaning different things in different places. If you raise your hand in a certain way in Austria, you'll go to jail, but that's now. This movie [tells it] as if you're there.
JI: I didn't think it was about the apocalyptic circumstances that came about. In 1933 this was an amazing country. [It was] coming into full bloom, kids had clubs to go to. But a small part of the community were having their civil rights eroded, but not in such a way that it took away from all the other wonderful things going on—unless you were Jewish. In which case, it wasn't so great. But you weren't hard up [initially]. The Jews were benefiting from many other things happening magnificently in the country [at the time]. Because I've done interviews where I've been asked, “Is the message of the film that, if we don't watch out, all this could happen again?”
It’s not about where we got to in 1943. 1933 was bad enough if you were Maurice. 1937 wasn't such a great year for him. Frankly there are people around the planet today who, as a consequence of me buying these clothes made in China, don't have a very good day at work. There are homeless people I've stepped over to get into the hotel today. It’s about this ethical minefield we experience every day. It's not about whether it would or wouldn't come to a genocidal apocalypse again. It's about how do you live your life in the very challenging times.
Q: It's easy enough to condemn the distant past. But the Iraq war movies have all been box office failures because that's what is all around you. It's a different thing.
JI: I think when Arthur Miller wanted to talk about McCarthyism—this cancer that was eating American society—he wrote a play about the Salem witch trials called The Crucible. I think, in these very challenging and terrifying times we live in, which are full of fear and rationalization, there are a million decisions that I make every day that I'm not sure about. I have small children. I have no idea how they will or won't judge me for the things I do.
VM: Sometimes, a good way that I looked at this story metaphorically, was the notion that when you have a pot of water, if it's boiling water and you throw a frog in, it will jump out. But if you bring it up slowly, the frog will just get warmer and warmer [until it's too late] and then he cooks.
JI: Wow, that's really cruel, have you done that?
VM: No. But that's a metaphor for the German people. Why didn't they do something? Why didn't you leave if you were Jewish? They didn't realize what was going on, how warm it was getting. It wasn't boiling at once, it took a while.
Q: Did you know each other before shooting?
VM: No. I knew Jason's work, and I flew out to Providence where Jason was filming [Brotherhood] to meet him, as I knew we wouldn't have time before filming started.
JI: It was a generous gesture of Viggo to do that. I don't want to get too soppy, but it made me feel incredibly warm towards him. When I arrived in Hungary, having had to shed a character on the plane, Viggo had already been around Europe on his own research trip and gathered some artifacts he thought might be useful for the character of Maurice.
Viggo made it very, very easy for me to like him. He made it very easy to be his friend on screen and off screen. We have a relationship and these things count. You're relaxed in each other's company; you tell each other when you're being an idiot. That usually takes months and months on a film set, and we had about 20 minutes [to do so].
VM: Also, there's a simple idea of, “Do you like to rehearse and talk about stuff?” Of course, we both do [so that was] great.
Q: This film seems to welcome a degree of improvisation.
JI: We improvised a bit. You look someone in the eye and try and figure out how a human would behave in 1935.
Q: Did you need to do research, and what kind did you do? Obviously you've read these books, but were there films you watched as well, like the Nazi propaganda films that Goebbels commissioned?
VM: This is different in that it doesn't have a big moment at the end. You're not let off the hook as an audience, with a catharsis. You can't say, “Oh, what a horrible villainous person who deserved to die,” or “How great, he went down in a hail of bullets but he did save four-and-a-half people. This film is different. It's not over when it's over, which is the mark of a good story. [In István Szabó's film] Mephisto, which was also shot in Budapest, is a character who bears some resemblance, but he's ambitious from the get-go and he's monstrous.
The thing about Halder is that he's quite normal. The strength of the film is this normalcy. It's quite mundane—even in the camp—it's just another day in the camp. The sun happens to be shining; there's a couple of dead guys, there's a guy who looks like he's going to die pretty soon, and there's someone's going to get some crappy soup; some are lined up and are going to get gassed. It sounds terrible, but it's actually just another day.
One of the things I did, apart from going to Germany and listening to music and all that, was that I drove around in Poland where camps had been. Some places were hard to find. It was a hot day, I was by myself. I finally sat down, and I’m thinking about all these sign posts I've seen. I gradually realized I am here and the sun is shining and the birds are singing and it was a beautiful spring day—and you know they saw those days, too. Whether they were dying or ill, or guards, or maintenance men cleaning the officer’s porch, or preparing the soup, there were nice days.
There weren't always what we see in these movies—grim, black and white, dramatic events every second. You walk down the camp and it's disturbingly quiet and normal. It's become acceptable. For the Jews in the camp, yesterday, today, tomorrow, this is what I'm dealing with now—it's not dramatic in a sense. And that's what's disturbing.
Even when we were shooting that scene at the end, the strangest thing was the quiet. We hear this music playing as I approach with the camera following me, and it [gets] louder and louder, but there wasn't much else. So people say, “It doesn't seem like concentration camp.” No, it doesn't seem like a concentration camp in movies. But it’s a place, and there are people there, and it's just another day. Unfortunately.
I’m not saying I wasn't disturbed by it. It was even more disturbing. I brought things and covered them in dirt and placed them around... But it was more disturbing than fires and rain and screaming.
JI: The first day I had off, I went to the Museum of Terror, which was a state police museum. In the very first room there was a panel that deal with the fact that half a million Jews were killed in the first month there. I did an open-top bus tour, and the guide was saying that 90% of the population are Catholic and about 2% other, mainly Jewish. I asked, what was that percentage before the war? And she said, “I don't know, I think maybe the same.” Everywhere I went, I wondered who lived there. I wondered who was dragged out screaming.
Q: Viggo, your next film is based on Cormac McCarthy's The Road and it deals with some equally difficult situations in the near future.
VM: And there's lots of great Germans in it! It's no surprise that that book is [McCarthy's] best-selling book, because it’s very direct, and very universal. Everybody is the child of someone. Many people have children, everybody has some idea of the parent-child relationship. Any parent who's halfway interested in their child has that concern: “Well, if I'm not here for a week, or a day, or forever, will my kid be all right? Who's going to watch, who's going to feed them?" Children will also worry. That's taken to an extreme… Any parent's worry is taken to an extreme—like, if I'm gone, this kid has nothing and probably will be killed and eaten [laughs]!