Exploring the grey areas of complicity with the crimes of Nazi Germany is in vogue at the minute: after ‘Valkyrie’ and ‘The Reader’, this adaptation of CP Taylor’s 1981 play also concerns itself with the limits of responsibility and the middle ground between right and wrong. Viggo Mortensen is John Halder, a mild-mannered academic who begins the film in 1933 as an apolitical family man harried by an ill mother and a fragile wife and ends it several years later wandering around a death camp in SS gear, amazed at what’s going on.
Along the way, he lends his ideas on compassionate euthanasia to the government’s cause, his friendship with a Jewish psychiatrist (Jason Isaacs) is tested and he leaves his wife for a less complicated student (Jodie Whittaker) whose nonchalance at his politics extends to giving him a blow job when he’s suited and booted in SS uniform.
Most of the film isn’t so crude. By all accounts, Taylor’s play was a more experimental piece than this film, in which the production values, like the acting, veer between the acceptable and the stodgy and in which expressive moments, such as Halder’s neurotic musical visions, jar given the mostly straight approach to storytelling. Yet, despite its flaws, the film retains a theoretical power to which Mortensen’s performance is well attuned. The script is good at positing a credible idea of why someone like Halder might turn to the Nazis – pragmatism, moral weakness, personal crisis, flattery – and sensitive in exploring the personal ramifications of that decision, if, as the film argues, you can call it that.