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Jewish Journal

On-screen morality plays illuminate Holocaust choices

by Tom Tugend

December 3, 2008 | 9:00 pm

Viggo Mortensen and Jodie Whittaker in "Good."

Viggo Mortensen and Jodie Whittaker in "Good."

World War II and the Holocaust ended more than 60 years ago, but the subject's fascination for filmmakers as the ultimate moral testing ground for participants on both sides only intensifies with the passage of time.

Two interesting but flawed films opening this month illustrate the point.

Amos Gitai, the famed and controversial Israeli filmmaker ("Kippur," "Kadosh"), has assembled an exceptional French cast in his latest work, "One Day You'll Understand."

As in many of Gitai's films, the pace is deliberate and the intricate plot frequently dense to the point of opaqueness, but the acting and dialogue, even in English subtitles, sparkle with touches of brilliance.

The chief protagonist is Victor (Hippolyte Girardot), descended from an old French family on his late father's side, while his mother, Rivka (the legendary Jeanne Moreau), is part of the immigrant Russian Jewish Gornick family.

In the late 1980s, while the radio is broadcasting the trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyons," Victor discovers some old papers and photos in the attic.


'One Day' trailer

One is a letter sent by his father to the local prefecture during the Nazi occupation of France, testifying to his own pure Aryan blood and Catholicism, while pointing out that his wife is Jewish.

Obsessed by the find, Victor questions his mother, but she refuses to uncover the past. He then takes his wife (the lovely Emmanuelle Devos) and their two children to the tiny village where his grandparents, Rivka's parents, went into hiding during the war.

Victor is devastated when he learns of their fate, while his wife tries to console him in a tender scene, murmuring, "You mustn't forget, but you cannot undo history."

In the end, Rivka presents her own story, and the yellow star she wore, not to her son but to her grandchildren, who may be able to shape a better future.

In the second movie, "Good," John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is a likeable professor of literature at a German university, who, in normal times, would have led a respectable, useful life, written some scholarly papers and been fondly remembered by his students.

But the year is 1933, and times are not normal in Berlin. Halder has written an obscure novel, in which the protagonist makes a case for compassionate euthanasia. The book has come to the attention of the Fuhrer himself, who also has some thoughts about killings, though not necessarily compassionate.

Suddenly, the modest Halder finds himself feted by Nazi bigwigs, beautiful women find him attractive and a private car and splendid apartment are at his disposal.


'Good' trailer

As Halder rises, Maurice, his closest friend, World War I comrade and a psychiatrist, sinks deeper and deeper as the anti-Jewish vise tightens.

When Halder faces his moral test -- to help Maurice at some risk to his new career -- he sympathizes but hesitates, with fatal consequences.

The tale of the man who sells his soul to the devil for worldly success is generally intriguing but loses much of its usual impact in "Good."

Considerable parts of the dialogue and acting are flat and stilted, and the viewer is hard-put to invest his emotions in this particular Faustian bargain.

"Good" is based on the play of the same title by the late British Jewish author C.P. Taylor, which was a big hit on the London stage in the early 1980s.

Judging by reviews of the time, the original play was notable for its sardonic humor, including a Chaplinesque turn by Hitler, which is sorely absent from the movie.

"One Day You'll Understand" opens Dec. 5 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and "Good" opens Dec. 31 at the Music Hall and Town Center, Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.

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