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A matter of 'Good' and evil

The 1981 morality play about Hitler's Germany finally comes to the screen.

December 30, 2008|Susan King

British actor Jason Isaacs was appalled when he received a call several years ago from an old acting school chum, producer Miriam Segal.

"We had started a relationship, which was based on two Jewish people screaming at each other -- even back then," recalls Isaacs.

So when she asked to meet with him about making a movie out of C.P. Taylor's 1981 play, "Good," they had another argument. In fact, Isaacs informed his friend that she should be ashamed of herself.

"It's a disgraceful play," Isaacs, who is Jewish, told her, though he had never seen or read "Good." "It apologizes for Nazism, and you as a Jewish woman should be running a million miles from it."

But Segal insisted he take the play home with him and read it. As soon as he finished the play, he called her with an apology and pledged to Segal he would "help you the best I can."

"Good," which opens in limited release Wednesday, is set in Germany during the 1930s and '40s. Viggo Mortensen plays John Halder, a well-regarded, morally decent college professor who has a crazy wife, two unloving children and a whiny mother with dementia. His only real friend is the outspoken, gregarious Jewish shrink Maurice, played by Isaacs. Halder finds himself embraced by the Nazis because of a novel he has written on the need for compassionate euthanasia.

The book becomes fodder for the Nazi propaganda machine and Halder is quickly taken under the wing of several highly placed political figures. Enjoying the good life, Halder turns a blind eye to what is really happening in the country, especially to Maurice.

It took Segal several years to get "Good" to hit the screen. At one point, says Isaacs, the film was ready to start production in Germany with a different actor as Halder and a different director. "There was just some tiny rubber-stamp thing that needed to happen at the bank," he says. "A lot of people hadn't been paid in such a long time. Miriam has sacrificed her rather booming production company, apartment and car to finally get this thing up."

Isaacs wrote a check to help keep things going, but the production still collapsed, "leaving huge debts everywhere, including me. But she was determined."

After few more false starts, Segal finally secured the financing and the film went into production last year in Budapest.

"Good" is just one of several films released this year dealing with Nazis and World War II, including "Defiance," which also opens Wednesday, and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "The Reader" and "Valkyrie." The issues raised by World War II remain strikingly contemporary, noted "Good" director Vicente Amorim.

"World War II is such a strong metaphor for human behavior," he says. "We wanted 'Good' to be as much about what's happening in the world today as it is about what happened in Germany in the 1930s -- the decisions that made the rise of National Socialism possible are very, very similar to the ones we make in our everyday lives today."

Isaacs agrees with Amorim that he wasn't compelled to do "Good" because it dealt with the Nazis.

"I am not interested in telling self-pitying stories that make us feel safe -- that we would be one of those awful evil people. Those have been made thousands of times."

But his two young daughters have caused him to reflect upon his inactions in recent years.

"I judge myself about the ethical choices I make in life," Isaacs says.

"The fact that the civil rights have been gradually eroded. To sanction torture, to throw away the Geneva Convention, to detain people without trial, all of those things have gone on in my name by my government. All of these things have been done and I don't protest. I vote when I can. So who am I to point the finger [at the Germans in the 1930s] when I have no idea how many people around the world have suffered or died as a consequence of things done in my name of which I haven't objected?"

Mortensen, who saw the play in London in 1981 when he was just starting out as an actor, was drawn to the material because there are no easy answers in the drama.

"Good," he says, is not about generals or soldiers. "It is not about Hitler. It's about regular people, people with families, people who make up the middle class of Germany at the time. Thoughtful people, decent people, good people and the decisions that they make or don't make, the mistakes they make as they go through each day as the years go by."

And audiences are not let off the hook regarding Halder's actions. "In all of those other movies, no matter how good they are, there is a distance that you are allowed to judge the movie and the Germans at the time," offers Mortensen.

"In our movie, you are so close to the people I think probably you understand to some degree the choices that my character makes along the way until a certain point, and then it's troubling."

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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