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The SS
Hitler's Instrument of Terror
by Gordon Williamson
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Good"

The object here is to figure out what is so good about this Nazi character portrait that it merits yet another production on the early years of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. This is the second film in as many months that casts Germans speaking with English accents and brings us to an extermination camp during World War II for a last act finale, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" its immediate predecessor.

The answer to the question is that a 1982 play by C.P. Taylor, adapted by John Wrathall and directed by Austrian Vicente Amorim is a vehicle for Viggo Mortensen's fine gift of characterization. He is thereby tasked to convey a little known or expected German intellectual drafted into the feared Nazi Secret Service ("Hitler's private army") as a paragon of Reich virtue and preserve some sympathy for the poor man. How, then, to animate a man who is both professorially accomplished and tragically naive.

An inspiring lecturer in the field of literature, Professor Halder (Mortensen) commands his classroom with illuminating oratory. He's so good at it that he attracts Anne, a pretty fraulein (Jodie Whittaker) to attend without, herself, being a registered student. On one such classroom occasion, his vivid elocution is cut short by a commotion outside which turns out to be the destruction of a pile of books that the Nazi command has condemned.

The classroom empties, except for him and his new lady friend, who in short enough time becomes his mistress, the cause of his divorce from his mentally ill wife, and then, his new wife. The process surprises and amazes his best friend and polemic stimulant, Jewish doctor Maurice (Jason Isaacs) who has never known Halder as much of a ladies' man. When he meets the blond vixen, the doctor, something of a womanizer himself, is consumed with envy.

The other matter which demands a conversation is the depletion of the college's library and what it portends. But Halder's contemplation of it is so unvisionary, that when he's summoned to appear before an official at Nazi party headquarters, he can only fear his termination or something equally personal.

But, it's rather the exact opposite. Hitler and Goebbels have read the book he published a few years ago, according to the functionary (Mark Strong), and expressed high regard for his fictional story involving euthanasia for the elderly which had been inspired by the pain his mother was experiencing in her approach to old age. Interpreting it with meanings that support their own ideas about the master race, the Reich now wants to commission him to write an official paper on that theme along with his appointment as an honorary S.S. officer. He will be an example of the best thinkers in their cause.

Thus, the academician finds himself valued in a way he never imagined and agrees to join the party and accept the trappings of privilege while putting its ideology and inhuman practices into a compartment of his mind that he will hide away from concious thought. All good.

The blindness comes home to roost when the fate of all Jews become dire in Germany and Maurice drops all pretense of dignity by appealling to his Nazi friend to get him an exit visa--a near impossibility. But it leaves little question in the academic's mind about the situation of life and death that surrounds him.

The message of this formulation is that the rising power of Nazism caused moral confusion in decent Germans who never, even, joined the party. The commercial calculation is to bring this little known aspect of these very dark days to light. But in centering on a smart man who is as socially and politically inept as Halder, who can't or won't employ his intelligence for a contemplation of consequences, it invites the thought that the playright and the filmmakers had to stretch a few points for the sake of dramatization.

After "Eastern Promises" and, for that matter, "A History of Violence," there's no film with Mortensen that I'd want to miss. But this is a miscalculation in which he evidently thought that a stuttering and maddeningly tentative delivery renders the man, as written, understandable, or creditable, or sympathetically good.

His struggle in the attempt is clear, but fighting against the real subtext that well-intentioned members of German military elite couldn't claim intellectual compartmentalization as an excuse for personal corruption defeats him. Under this scenario, neither consistency nor sympathy are his to create. A dreamy, high-pitched chorus that visits him in moments of extreme moral confusion merely amplifies, with cinematic trickery, the wrongheaded attempt to justify Reich participation, however theoretical.

Supporting players are entirely pro. Mark Strong gives you the impression that his Nazi functionary eats bullet casings for breakfast. Blond Whittaker passes well for an alluring fraulein; and Isaacs is as convincing as he needs to be at all stages of a successful Jew's tragic fate through these genocidal years.

But in the end, the central figure leaves us with the reminder that intellect doesn't come with a moral compass or with the spine of decency. After all, in the paranoid mentality of tyrants, intelligence is a weapon that can be used against them. The effect of this example, in a film that strikes you as repetition of an already belabored subject, isn't especially good.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Viggo Mortensen
The professor finally realizing what's around him.

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