There’s been a lot of talk recently about the number of movies being released in the last month that deal with the German perspective on WWII and the Holocaust, including Stephen Daldry’s The Reader and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. The drama Good, based on the controversial play by C.P. Taylor, could actually be seen as somewhat of a prequel to those movies, but it also showed up before many of them, having premiered at the Toronto Film Festival back in September.
Directed by Vicente Amorim, the movie stars Viggo Mortensen as Dr. John Halder, a German professor of literature whose first novel about euthanasia gets the newly in-power Nazi party interested in recruiting him. As Halder moves up the ranks and finds success, his long-time friend Maurice, a Jewish psychiatrist played by Jason Isaacs, finds his very life destroyed by the changes in the country. Mortensen is as good as always, but it’s Isaacs’ performance that really impressed us, as he creates an emotionally-charged portrayal of a wealthy and successful German-Jewish professional whose rights and livelihood are taken away as his friend’s life continues to improve.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Isaacs at the Toronto Film Festival to talk about this fascinating film which Isaacs had been deeply involved with for many years. We quickly learned that Isaacs had a lot on his mind as one question would send him off on a fast-paced stream of consciousness about a lot of different things, including a particularly moving story from his own experiences while making the film.
ComingSoon.net: I really enjoyed the movie and only found out a short a while ago that you were one of the producers and have been involved with making this project for a long time. Jason Isaacs: A long, long, long time, even to the insane extent of writing a check of my own money to keep the production afloat when all the real money was going to arrive three days later, and it never arrived, and that version fell apart and everybody was left out of a money and Miriam Segal, the unbelievably tenacious producer re-raised all the money again, paid everyone off, including me, and we got the production back up and running and thank God, because then Viggo was available. We approached him before and he’d never been available and he was finally available. The ley lines met.
CS: As the son of German Jews, I’d heard a lot of stories of Kristal Nacht so it was interesting for me to see it from this different perspective from another German. Isaacs: Look, I’ll tell you something that’s relatively interesting, but everyone had seen the play. Viggo had seen the play. I had spoken to him and when he was in London 25 years ago, he saw the big hit version with Alan Howard in it. He went to London for a screen test, he had a day off and saw the play and it had a huge impact on him. Miriam Segal, the producer, the one who tenaciously fought to make this thing happen even while it cost her her business and apartment and car and everything else, she never let go. She’s Jewish and she saw it when she was 18 and Jodie (Whitaker) had seen it as well, many years ago. I didn’t see it, and I didn’t see it not by accident. Deliberately. I had the chance a few times, and I did not want to see a play that I thought from the blurb rationalized and justified how decent people became Nazis, because I’m Jewish, and that period of time had a massive impact on my life and my parents’ lives. When she called me seven years ago and said, “I got the rights to ‘Good,’ I want to make it into a film. Come have lunch. Do you want to help me?” I went, “No, I don’t. Why do you want to do it? You’re crazy.” And she said, “Well, just read it.” I read it and then I said, “You’re insane. It’s brilliant but you’ll never get any money to make this. Who’s going to give you money to tell a story as complicated and subtle and nuanced as this? It’s not going to happen.” She said, “Well, I’m determined to do it.” It took years and years and years and as I said, I was involved, not like she was, but involved helping and getting whatever contacts I had on the way and trying to raise money a number of times, trying to get casts and directors. Eventually, thank God, when it all fell apart and there was nothing but massive debts in Germany, she managed to raise money again and what we didn’t have was a star, and I have a friend in Los Angeles who’s a friend of Viggo’s, and he had very publically said that he wasn’t doing any acting for a year and wasn’t reading any scripts. Her name’s Jeannie McCarthy and she’s credited as a casting director on this film, and I asked her if there was any way of her getting a script to Viggo, and that was a terrible breach of friendship. I know some other famous people and if someone ever asked me to get something to them, I’d say, “No, of course not. They’re not my friend and they wouldn’t be my friend for very long…” And she did, because she knew him and she knew he’d be interested and within three pages, he went, “I saw this 25 years ago, I’m in.” And then, it all ended up happening.
CS: It’s funny, because when you hear the movie is based on a play, you expect it’ll be a certain thing but this movie doesn’t really feel like a play. Isaacs: No, no. First of all, it’s nothing like the play. That was really just a starting point, but also, one of the amazing things about this period, which I’ve never seen on film before–Germany in the early ’30s, not Germany in the ’40s–is that the country just absolutely came to life. It was like watching a flower bloom and the place was just booming. It was booming construction, everyone was employed all of a sudden, the young people had something to do and get behind. They were crushed by the Versailles Treaty, and then suddenly, this guy came along and went, “No, f*ck you all. We’re not paying these repayments” and created full employment and created clubs and camps for young people to go to and have fun, sporting events and parades, and it was an extraordinary time, really flowering. There was some other slightly less savory elements of what he was doing, and people were none too keen on them. The very first boycott he called on Jewish businesses, no one boycotted them. People went and shopped more there, so it’s a gradual thing, so what you watch here is that this is not a film about Hitler’s henchmen or great powers that be in government. It’s an ethical thriller I think. It’s human beings right at the center of this stuff who are navigating the same moral mindfields that I find can paralyze me in the morning. Should I buy this shirt? It’s made in China. Under what conditions is it made in China? I should be appalled by the conditions it’s made in and the health and safety and regulations that exist or do I think think, “But if I don’t, those people won’t get any employment” or can I just not think about it because what the hell? Everyone’s buying them. I’m not going to stop it by not buying it myself. What do I do about the fact that the party I voted for, who I’m very keen on in England, who’ve done a lot of great things in welfare reform and wealth redistribution, also suspended the right to silence, also have decided that torture is legal in certain circumstances, also will detain people without trial or an access to a lawyer for years. What do I do about that?
CS: So that’s what they had to go through back then, particularly Viggo’s character. Isaacs: That’s what everyone’s going through and we go through it every day, so it’s not weird for me once I read it. It’s not really about them at all. It’s not about pointing the finger at anybody else. Everyone going, “If you look the other way…” No, it’s about the fact that I have two little kids and I’m not sure how to set the right example, and will I be held accountable? And if so, where should I be drawing the line in the sand? Should I be out marching in the streets? Because I’m not confronting the people at one time, will the economic migrants who all the British newspapers are saying we should send them back? These people can’t come here just to get a better standard of living. They claim they’ll be killed when they go back, but I don’t believe them, those asylum seekers. But they now lost the right of appeal and maybe they are or they aren’t. We sent a lot of boats back in the 1930’s to Germany. I’m not equating these situations, I’m not saying modern-day British or American government is nonsense, I’m just saying that life is a constant moral maze. It’s by telling stories and it’s by exploring these things and seeing the humanity in these situations that we learn things about ourselves today. It’s why Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” – he didn’t care about witch trials, he cared about McCarthyism.
CS: I didn’t realize before that you were Jewish, but I was curious why you related to Maurice in particular. Isaacs: Well, Maurice is a character that I’ve never seen in a story about this time. He’s completely unapologetically bon vivant. He’s a successful psychiatrist, he screws around, he drinks, he eats. He’s far more confident and domineering of the two of them in this relationship. His friendship with his best friend Holder. He’s a decorated first World War veteran. He’s absolutely German to his core and loves his life, so when people go, “Well, people should have left.” When I hear that… “Why didn’t all the Jews leave?” Leave where? From what, my home, where I’ve been for generations? And anyway, they had anti-Semitic laws in the ’20s, before the first World War, some of which were rescinded after the second World War. The fact that there were some small erosion of his civil rights, it didn’t impact on his life enough or on his friendships or standard of living enough to make him do too much for a while. I was reading the diaries of Victor Klemperer for instance–Miriam gave them to me–who was a first World War veteran and was married to a non-Jewish woman. When things first started happening, they weren’t applying to him, and even when things got worse, they still wouldn’t find him because he was married to a non-Jewish woman and he had a first World War “Get Out of Jail Free” card as it were. There was something about having been brought up steeped in literature and the images and media of the Holocaust, all those mountains of bodies moved by bulldozers… But somehow, for the very first time, to inhabit, to try and imagine myself being a single individual, not part of a mountain of corpses, a single individual and have to do a chart on the wall of my trailer: 1933, still practicing, 1935, these are the restrictions for my business. I can no longer employ Aryans but I can still treat them. 1938, I can’t pay my electricity bill or wear nice clothes, I have to repair myself, I can only treat Jewish people, but I’d have to sell my building to someone for a token and they’d rent it back to me. All the specific detail about these people’s lives, of Maurice’s life, that I gleamed from other diaries of contemporary accounts, certainly made the sweep of 6 million people across Europe seem real to me. They became 6 million individuals, because I was being so specific.
There was also this amazing experience that… the film’s set in really social places and Viggo’s a really charming and sensitive artist, and it’s easy to be distracted by the social connections to making it work. Because I was flying in, doing my scenes and flying out again–I was shooting a TV series at the time–I hit the ground running. It’s really difficult going from playing a Rhode Island gangster for Showtime and suddenly be a psychiatrist in 1933 or 1936, whenever the scene was. I had this recording that someone had sent to me from the internet, which is a BBC recording of a very young British army rabbi who was one of the first people to liberate Belsen, and he got in there and some of the people who could barely stand–they were surrounded by tens of thousands of corpses–asked him if he would record a Friday night service to broadcast to the world to show that were still Jews who could stand and pray and who were proud of themselves. A lot of the people who made this recording died, not just afterwards but because of the sheer effort of making this recording. I listened to it on my iPod repeatedly and every time I listened to it, I tried to pick out an individual voice and concentrate just on that voice because you can hear them, they’re struggling, and honor that person’s memory and try not to do some generic acting, try to get my own ego out of the way, try not to think, “Oooh, this is a very emotional scene, am I being good?” Any of the normal narcissism… I was listening to it on a loop really on set, all the time, certainly before every take and every scene. A year later or nine months later, I was one of the presenters at this thing, National Holocaust Memorial Day in Liverpool, because it is the international city of culture, and all the arch-bishops and politicians and lots of victims of genocide in Rwanda and Darfur and Kindertransport people who are still alive in Liverpool. I read some letters out from the father of a Kindertransport, this lady who had been on the Kindertransport, the had just recently found some letters from her father who had to send her away and eventually went to the camps. So it was a very emotional experience, and I was backstage and because there were so many people there–performers and refugees–they put me in a dressing room with someone else and it said “Leslie Hardman” on the door. And in walks this 95-year-old guy and said, “Hi, I’m Rabbi Leslie Hardman” and I went, “Rabbi Leslie Hardman?” and then I said, “Are you the Rabbi Leslie Hardman that was with the British Army that liberated Belsen?” He said, “Yeah, that was me, how did you know that?” I said, “I know that because I’ve heard you thousands of times.” And he told me all the stuff that wasn’t on the BBC recording, about that day and how hard he had to fight the British Army because they weren’t interested. He was an amazing man and his recollection was absolutely pin-sharp. He said that a number of the people died standing up and you couldn’t tell they were dead, they just stopped singing, and they were dead standing up.
So I found this experience overwhelming and why I was interested in Maurice, because he wasn’t a victim and because I don’t judge Maurice and I don’t judge Viggo’s character because I think I might have made the very same rationalization. It was just this party of extremists who were doing a lot of great things in Germany, some stuff they found repulsive, and Viggo is persuaded that maybe if he joins the party, if a lot of good, right thinking people join the party, they would dilute the (bad people), who let’s face it, are going to be in power for the next four years. What else are you meant to do?
CS: When you did your scenes with Viggo, were you able to do them in any kind of order at all? Isaacs: No, it’s all out of order. What happens when you shoot a film or anything, you shoot a location, so because of the location, we shoot all of the scenes in my house, so sometimes, it’s 1933 and they redress it, it’s 1940. That’s why I have a little timeline and a chart in my trailer, to help me work out exactly what state I was in and whether I’d spoken to him for a year or not, whether we still saw each other, what were the subjects we were avoiding, whether Kristal Nacht had happened, what new laws had come out. The Nuremberg Laws, which classified me as “non-human”, things like that.
CS: I also wanted to ask about the British accents, because that’s something that struck me as odd, since there was no disguising the fact that most of the actors were British. Isaacs: Well, you wouldn’t want to do a German accent, because that would imply we were speaking a second language, so we’re not speaking a second language because obviously, we’re all speaking our first language, that’s what we’re meant to be doing in the film. American is a very contemporary sound; German, it has a very clipped sound.
CS: It was a very conscious thing to do that, though. Isaacs: Well, all the actors are English apart from Viggo, for a start, and American has an ease and a casualness to it, vowels and words joined up together, that it’s not like German at all. The class system in Germany is alive and there’s a great parallel to the British class system and a sense of order and hierarchy and stuff, so the English (accent) is a much closer approximation for them to speaking the language. But also, you could have made it German with English subtitles but you’re trying to get this story to as many people as possible and it doesn’t really matter, I don’t think.
Good opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, December 31.