Review Date: 1-4-09
Release Date: 12-31-08
Runtime: 96 minutes
Period: 1937 – 1942 Germany
Costume Designer: Györgyi Szakács
In an awards-season flooded with World War II movies, you have to stop and think: what’s going on here? What zeitgeist or cultural shift is bringing us back to some of the darkest days in human history? Let’s see – out in theaters now we have The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Valkyrie, Miracle at St. Anna, and Defiance. What’s next? At Sundance 2009, evidently a Norwegian Nazi Zombie movie called Dead Snow. Let’s hope it’s a musical!
All glibness aside, any movie about WWII is going to have to deal with death and loss. In our culture, we grew up learning in school that the Nazis were pure evil. They initiated a policy of ethnic, political, and religious genocide that was unprecedented then, and continues to be inconceivable to this day. We still have genocide and ethnic cleansing, don’t get me wrong – Darfur, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda-Burundi, the Iraqi Kurds – the list is unfortunately very long. But somehow, the Nazis, in their magnificent uniforms, have become a clear symbol for the underlying hatred and collective insanity that causes people to kill for truly insignificant reasons, religion being one of them. But evil flourishes when good people do nothing, and that is a big part of the problem.
Our current global political situation – the demise of civility, and destruction of property, order and lives in the Gaza Strip – should tell us something about why these movies are appealing to us. In America, we have dealt with years and months of stomach-churning newscasts regarding the destruction we have wreaked in the Middle East. Who is the bad buy? Who is the good guy? Can we even differentiate anymore? With so much ambiguity in our own political actions, perhaps the general movie-going populace is looking for an evil that is more definitive: Nazis.
Remember the old days when the Nazis had fallen from being purely evil into more comic caricatures of themselves? Remember Hogan’s Heroes? Remember The Producers? Remember Dr. Strangelove? Nowadays we need a real enemy, something or someone to feel good about hating. As a country, we have a hard time collectively hating ourselves, our government, or our political leaders, regardless of our situation. George Bush is giving us a run for our money, however, as recent polls indicate that he might very well be known as “The Worst President in History”. But since it would be in poor taste (and not good box office) to make George W. Bush the villain in every movie, I suppose we, the movie-going public, will stick with what we know to be the embodiment of bad: the Nazi.
So, to get back to the point – being born and raised in post-WWII America, we were taught: Nazis = evil, and for the most part, none of us ever questioned it. Good is a movie that makes you wonder about the veracity of that notion. How many Nazis were willingly enlisted? How many German citizens were indifferent, and only roped into Nazi activities under the threat of death? What would you do if your hand were similarly forced? When does self-preservation override principles? What did it mean to be a “good” German? Good asks these questions, and I think it is a bold movie for it We want to think of all Nazis as bad, bad, evil people. But what if some of them were forced into service unwillingly?
Viggo Mortenson plays Dr. John Halder, a meek, unassuming, liberal German university professor. He has written a book about compassionate euthanasia – a loving husband kills his terminally-ill wife, in an effort to end her suffering. The Nazis become interested in the book, and ask (force) Halder to draft a paper advocating euthanasia for all manner of people “suffering” from illness: mental illness, physical weakness, you get the picture. Halder is not interested in Nazi politics, but after some skillful flattery on the part of the SS, he starts to slide down the slippery slope of compliance.
Meanwhile, Halder’s unstable wife Helen (Anastasia Hille) is too preoccupied with the piano to pay attention to him or their children, his elderly mother (Gemma Jones, who lives with them) has lost her marbles and is unable to care for herself, and his father-in-law is encouraging him in no uncertain terms to join the Nazi party or face losing his job at the university. Halder is a man who is looking for his ship to come in – something to empower him, to save him, to rid him of his dull and painful duties as husband, father and son.
Along comes a young, attractive university student (Anne, played by Jodie Whittaker) to seduce him. She seems to symbolize, or at least parallel, the attention he starts to receive from the Nazi party as he becomes complicit in their plans. Though he prefers to be called “Professor Halder”, he wears the SS ring and the swastika tie tack. His official SS title is an honorary one only, or so he thinks. Halder never imagines he would ever have to actually don a Nazi uniform or perform any SS-related tasks. Though he seems to have no interest in Nazi policies or politics, he becomes a company man. He divorces Helen, marries Anne, and ships his mother back to her home in Brandenburg. He is swept away.
Along the way, we meet Maurice (Jason Isaacs, whom I LOVE!!), Halder’s best friend, drinking buddy, and psychoanalyst. Maurice happens to be Jewish, and asks Halder for help to leave the country. Through a series of perilous steps and missteps, Halder finally manages to get Maurice a ticket to Paris, only to find his vandalized apartment vacated. He leaves Maurice a note to come to his home to pick up the ticket.
Later that night, all hell is set to rain down in Berlin (in what would later become known as Kristallnacht). Halder reluctantly puts on his SS uniform for the first time, to the delight of his now-pregnant wife. He instructs her to give the train ticket to Maurice, should he come to the house later that night. Halder sets off into the melee of Kristallnacht, searching for Maurice in the chaos.
The movie skips forward to 1942. Halder is being questioned by one of the SS record-keepers at headquarters. The Nazis were legendarily meticulous record-keepers, and under the premise of testing their thoroughness, he asks if he can examine Maurice’s files. His face drops when he sees the records.
He dons his SS uniform, and as he’s leaving the house in a chauffeured SS vehicle, confronts his wife. Turns out that Maurice did, in fact, come to the house to get the train ticket on Kristallnacht. It’s just that Halder’s wife turned him in to the SS, and he was carted off to a concentration camp. The betrayal of Halder’s wife mirrors the betrayal of the SS – she wasn’t who he though she was. Halder scours the concentration camp, looking for Maurice, and when he is nowhere to be found, Halder realizes that he has been had – the Nazi party had seduced him, used him, lied to him, betrayed him, and thrown him out with the trash. The end.
Viggo Mortensen gives an amazingly understated performance as this mixed-up, mild-mannered intellectual. You can actually see where Halder gets swept up in the Nazi machine like dust in a vacuum. It’s painful. All of Halder’s costumes are perfect. He starts out as a harried “Mr. Mom”-like character, taking care of everyone but himself. He is disheveled; his clothing looks dirty, old and unkempt. These are not wealthy people, and the textures of his costumes are brilliant. Everything is aged and worn, but there is still humble dignity in the way he carries himself.
Teaching at the university, he wears a professor’s robe over his suit. This was a delight – I can’t think of the last time I have seen a character in a film wear a legitimate-looking professor’s robe. Nothing looks fake in this movie. Every garment looks like the character owns it, and wears it regularly. It’s very good work.
Eventually, as Halder rises through the ranks of the Nazi bureaucracy, his costumes take on a more refined air. Suddenly, his shirts are lighter in color, ties are crisp and solid in color, emphasizing the SS tie tack; his overcoats are perfect. It’s a very smooth, subtle transition. I would guess that not many people would even perceive it; it is indeed deftly handled.
In the end, he wears his Nazi uniform. I have discussed it here on Frocktalk before, in the Miracle at St. Anna review. They are good-looking uniforms, but so very sinister. The thing is that Viggo looks very uncomfortable in it, which means Halder looks very uncomfortable in it, and isn’t that kind of the point?
Jason Isaacs as Maurice has all the best lines and the most emotionally identifiable part in the film. Here is a man who is desperate for help, persecuted for no real reason. That his best friend joins the ranks of those that would annihilate him is cause for grief, indeed. His plea for help is truly moving.
In the beginning, Maurice wears light-colored three-piece suits, and closer to the end, he wears striped suits in dark tones. Striped, like the concentration camp uniforms – a foreshadowing? The last suit we see him in looks like it hasn’t been cleaned or pressed in ages – which is actually a very good costume detail. If his maid stopped working for him (because she was Aryan, as he explains in the film), and he doesn’t know (?!) how to press a suit, it will look rumply and puckery, just like his final costume. I thought it was a very adroit move on the part of the costume team. Really good work.
Anne, the university-student-turned-wife of Halder, is beautifully expressed through costume. When we meet her for the first time, she wears a lovely lace blouse, red cardigan sweater and black print skirt with belt. It’s textbook-beautiful in silhouette, and the tonality of the costume coordinates so well with the university setting, the Halder’s office set. This first costume is her jumping-off point, her innocent schoolgirl look, and who she becomes after seducing Halder is quite another thing.
She arrives at Halder’s home one night in the pouring rain. Cut to, she’s wearing nothing but a bathrobe, and Halder is trying to help her dry out her soaked clothing (including bra and stockings). The details are well attended, and it is so lovely to see the proper layers of clothing displayed so naturally. We see her again, later, in the park talking with Halder. This time she wears a magnificent red rayon print dress, belted. This dress is a show-stopper, as the color (red, passion) and the shape (belted, controlled) of it puts the fine point on her seduction of Halder, and on the seduction of the German people by the Nazi party. I hope that the costume team intended this interpretation – I think it is pretty brilliant, so I hope I am not making it up!
Later, we see Anne and Halder at a fancy Nazi ball. Her ivory-colored gown and jewelry are exquisite, and great careful detail has been demonstrated in the costuming of all of the background players. It’s a beautiful party. We see Anne again, pregnant, wearing a blue dress with lace jacket, and she wears blue yet again at a dinner on the night of the impending Kristallnacht. It is interesting to see her colors correspond to her influence in Halder’s life. Red (in the beginning) – passion, seduction. Ivory (at the ball) – acceptance, commitment. Blue (pregnant, toward the end) – cool, icy, no longer a challenge. Again, I am hoping I am not making this stuff up; it seemed pretty straightforward to me!
Some background: the costume designer is Györgyi Szakács, Hungarian, nominated for a Genie (Canadian film costume award) in 2000 for Sunshine. Most of her other credits are Hungarian films, movies that the majority of us probably haven’t seen. Doing a little research, I found that she is also a major player in theater, which explains some of her choices in this film.
I found this film to be very sensitively handled by the costume department. This is not a flashy movie, but the details were attended to in a loving manner. Texturally, all – ALL – of the fabrics were period appropriate. This is a very hard thing for most designers to achieve. Either you use garments and fabric from the period, to achieve the drape and the look of fabrics of the period, or you try to alter contemporary fabrics (enzyme wash, sanding, etc) to make them look like they are older or have that certain subtle period texture. Most of the time, you need two or three copies of a given garment to make it through the film, so how did she do it, keeping the textures real?
I suspect that her connection to the theatrical world has something to do with it. This is a designer from Eastern Europe, and she probably has the best connections to the best costumes and best technicians in the region. But we have those kinds of connections here – so what sets her work apart? Really, I think it all comes down to ingenuity and personal history. I doubt that this film had a very big budget – it was probably small change compared to Valkyrie. So, 1st strike – probably not enough money. They shot the entire movie in Budapest and its environs. So 2nd strike – limited regional resources, relatively-speaking. What prevents strike three is the fact that this designer has a specific, European vision in the design for this film.
The garments in this film feel real because this designer has a great sense for the time and place of the film. She’s done at least three other films dealing with the Holocaust, World War II and the Nazis. Budapest is not all that far from Austria, birthplace of the Big Bad One. I can only imagine that her exposure to Germanic culture, and the stories, pictures and echoes of that time are strong in her makeup. It just feels close to home, I guess. It is especially heartwarming to see a designer produce work that seems personally meaningful. This appears to be the case here.
The movie has its hiccups and problems – notably, everyone in the film speaks in an upper crust British accent – but the performances are generally strong (though the histrionics of the sick elderly mother made me roll my eyes a bit). The story is good, and thought provoking in ways I didn’t anticipate. Jason Isaacs (and did I mention I LOVE him?) is one of the executive producers on the film, and it’s all very exciting. You see, this film is based on a stage play, and I think they have done a very handy adaptation here. It doesn’t feel like a play on film (like Doubt sometimes did). It feels like a very sad story, plainly and yet expressively told. It’s very good, and I like it more as I think about it.
So Györgyi Szakács, great job, girl. I felt it – I felt your love for this story. It is a wonderful thing to be able to convey the depth of emotion evident in Good through fabric and thread. I hope all of you get a chance to see this film.
And stay tuned for a review of the Norwegian Nazi Zombie Movie Dead Snow sometime next year.