FridayLife is a weekly opinion column which appears on the ProLife NZ blog every Friday morning.
Last weekend I had occasion to watch the film Good on DVD.
Here’s the synopsis of the film (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Good is the story of John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), a German literature professor in the 1930s, who is reluctant at first to accept the ideas of the Nazi Party. He is pulled in different emotional directions by his wife, his mother, his mistress (Jodie Whittaker) and his Jewish friend (Jason Isaacs). Eventually Halder gives in to Nazism in order to advance his career. He is granted an honorary position in the SS, due to his writings in support of euthanasia. His involvement in the party makes his relationship with his Jewish friend more and more fraught. Finally, Halder finds himself working for Adolf Eichmann. Under the pretext of work he engineers a visit to a concentration camp where he imagines that he sees his emaciated friend. Seeing inmates arriving and the suffering of those at the camp he realizes what his deeds have accomplished.
Now one could be forgiven for thinking that Good is just another movie about Nazism and the personal struggles and decisions of someone living under that regime in 1930’s and 40’s Germany.
In many ways, even though Good is set in Nazi Germany, the issue of Nazism is merely used as a plot device, while the real focus of Good is the central character and his descent into the moral error of Consequentialism.
While most critics and reviewers have heaped glowing praise upon this film, it seems to me that most have actually missed the real heart of what Good, based on a stage play of the same name, is actually all about.
A lot of reviewers talk about Good as being an exploration of the issues faced by good people living under the Nazi regime, and they way that those good people responded to the cultural forces of that era of German history, but Good is actually about something far deeper and more philosophical than this.
The byline of the movie poster and DVD cover alludes to this fact by posing the question: ‘Anything that makes people happy can’t be bad can it?’
And therein lines the real essence of this movie, which uses Nazism as a device to raise the vitally important question: ‘what is it that makes something morally good’?
The movie examines this question by playing out the issue out before our very eyes within the fictional life of the central character, John Halder, who clearly starts out as a reasonable and good man, but whose unquestioning embrace of Consequentialism leads him into participation in one of the greatest evils of the last 100 years.
Consequentialism is a particular moral philosophy which proposes that the merit of an act should be judged by its outcomes, and an act brings happiness, or more pleasure than pain, then Consequentialism would claim that it cannot be considered inherently wrong.
(Utilitarianism is a particular form of Consequentialism that has become very ingrained in our modern cultural zeitgeist.)
In a nutshell, Consequentialism proclaims that that a good end can always be used to justify the means employed to get that good outcome.
This Consequentialism starts for John Halder, the central character of Good, when he leaves his wife for one of his young female students, all because, as he tells his wife one night, his adulterous relationship with his young mistress makes him feel good about himself and good about life.
Then Halder embraces Nazism because it provides him academic career advancement, something which affords him prestige, recognition and all of the luxuries and pleasures which go along with such things.
After divorcing his wife in order to move in with, and then marry, his young mistress, he abandons his mother, who has become an inconvenience to his new relationship, shifting her out of his former family home and into an apartment on her own, where, after an extended period without basic care and human interaction, she tries to kill herself.
In many ways John Halder is simply a moral coward, someone who wants to have his cake and eat it too.
He has a very good Jewish friend, whom he is fond of and genuinely wants to remain close to, but at the same time he refuses to distance himself from the Nazi regime, and all of its anti-Semitic hatred and evil, because that would require a great personal sacrifice from him – the loss of all the good things and the happiness he has attained because of his embrace of Nazism.
In effect, even though Halder is obviously concerned by what he sees happening around him, he has made his own personal satisfaction and happiness the most important part of his decision making processes, and as a result things such as good and evil become subjective and shifting boundaries, and important moral and ethical principles, such as inalienable respect for the human person, become tradable commodities instead of objective, unchanging and vitally important truths.
In many ways Halder is a man for our times, a man who has decided that the end justifies the means, especially when he is the one who will be reaping the rewards of all the good ends his moral failings and cowardice will bring about.
But alas, as Halder tragically discovers, only once it is all too late though, and only after his closet friend has been arrested and taken away to a Nazi death camp, moral cowardice never ends well, and Consequentialism always eventually results in the inhumane and unjust treatment of one group of persons at the hands of another group of persons (those with all the power).
The movie ends with Halder standing in the middle of a Nazi death camp, dressed in the black SS uniform that was given to him after he was made an honorary member of the Schutzstaffel in return for his academic contributions to the Reich.
As he pans around the camp, witnessing firsthand the horrific atrocities being perpetrated against the Jews his face becomes ashen with the realization that his failure to act, and his willingness to comply, for personal gain and happiness, has made him complicit in the grave evil that he now sees unfolding before him.
One of the most important aspects of this film, which, not surprisingly, seems to have largely been overlooked by the reviewers, is the fact that what starts Halder on the path to participation in the Nazi horrors is his willingness to write an academic dissertation which glowingly praises and glamorizes euthanasia.
This subplot of Halder’s euthanasia essay is actually something that I think is more important than many watchers of this movie may initially realize.
You see, Halder’s willingness to produce an academic paper strongly endorsing euthanasia is the act which puts him on the path to becoming a fully fledged, jackboot and black tie wearing member of the Schutzstaffel.
Interestingly, Halder has absolutely no expertise in philosophy, medical ethics, or anything else which would remotely qualify him to write an official government paper on such a massive bioethical issue as euthanasia. Instead the Reich has asked him, a literature professor, to write an academic paper endorsing euthanasia purely because of his previous authorship of a fictional novel which featured characters who engage in an act of euthanasia.
This fact is important because the film shows us that his paper on euthanasia becomes a massive hit in the public sector, and not only does it spawn a pro-euthanasia motion picture, but later in the film Halder even meets a doctor who praises his euthanasia essay and tells him that he considers Halder to have a ‘competent grasp of the ethical issues’ involved in euthanasia.
In many ways, this little detail of the film provides a subtle, but vitally important warning about how entire societies can easily be seduced into embracing erroneous ideologies (even when the peddlers of those ideologies have no real qualifications or authority in these areas) purely because of pop culture or mass media pressures that shape people’s thinking.
Later in the film Halder is taken on a tour of a German hospital housing psychiatric and mentally disabled patients. During this tour of the psychiatric hospital, we are shown an overcrowded hospital room with patients who are almost all quite obviously people with Down syndrome.
As the doctor in charge shows Halder this hospital room he remarks: ‘well you do have to ask yourself what sort of life is this, don’t you’, referring to the Down syndrome patients.
What this fleeting scene makes clear though is that these disabled persons are not unhappy because they are disabled, instead they are unhappy because of the lack of respect that is being shown to them as human persons, and the fact that they have all been forced into a tiny room, with curtains drawn (during the day) to keep them away from the outside world, and to keep the outside world away from them.
Oh what a timely warning that scene is for the peddlers of eugenic pre-natal testing which targets Down syndrome babies in this country.
To further drive home this important message, we are also shown the serious deterioration of Halder’s own mother, which only takes place once she is isolated and alienated, which leads to her depression and a suicide attempt.
In other words, these so-called ‘lives devoid of value’ (an actual term commonly in use before the Nazis even took power in Germany) have only lost meaning for the people living them because of the unjust treatment, or lack of love that is shown to them by the communities and families they live in.
And why has this come about?
Well, put simply, because the people around them have become more interested in their own lives, and living out a Consequentialist ethic which places more importance on personal happiness than loving others, or making sacrifices for the good of another.
Good may be a film set in Nazi Germany, but sadly its stark warnings about morality, good, and evil are more relevant and timely than they’ve ever been before.
Whether its abortion, euthanasia, the treatment of embryos, pornography, or any other of the myriad of issues plaguing us today, John Halder is a fictional embodiment of the spirit of our age, a spirit of indifference which has led to many of the great evils throughout human history, and which continues to underpin the serious disregard for human persons which mars our modern era, and which sees us living a ‘good’ life in the way that Faust lives the ‘good’ life right up until the devil returns to exact the terrible and diabolical payment that Faust owes him for his ‘good’ life.