By Aaron Hillis
Poet. Painter. Photographer. Political activist. Man of the world. Sure, the first sight of actor Viggo Mortensen’s cleft chin may instantly recall a marauding horde of Orcs or a naked knifefight in a Russian bathhouse, but he’s too smart and impassioned an artist to be written off as just another Hollywood leading man. His latest film is “Good,” directed by Vicente Amorim and based on the C.P. Taylor play of the same name. Set in 1933 Germany, the film finds Mortensen plays liberal Berlin professor John Halder, a reasonable yet silent detractor of the upswing of national socialism, who finds himself unwittingly swept up by the Nazi party after writing a novel about assisted suicide that becomes a Führer fave. I sat down with Mortensen before the holidays to gab about the film, traveling and contemporary politics — about which he has wonderfully fervent opinions.
“Good” is one of six Holocaust-related films that have come out this fall. I recently spoke to “The Reader” director Stephen Daldry, and I’d like to get a reaction from you to a quote I read to him. Film critic Stuart Klawans recently requested “a moratorium on Holocaust films. By continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.”
Any recollection is going to be different than what really happened, and every recollection about the same event is going to be different depending on whose recollection it is. After World War II, there was a well-known writer who said that after the Holocaust, poetry can no longer be written. It’s a grand, quotable statement, but it’s a load of nonsense, and so is what the gentleman says about the movies. People not only have a right to make them, but they will make them. It’s an interesting period of history. There are a lot of unresolved issues, probably more than there are about Vietnam or the Iraqi war, you know? It’s just a fact that people are interested in telling, seeing and reading stories about it.
How does your film stand apart?
“Good” is different than, not only the movies that are coming out this season about that period, but almost all movies about Germans in the ’30s and ’40s. It’s not told with the benefit, crutch or escape hatch of hindsight, knowing where we got to. Nor does it let the audience off the hook, or benefit from the grand heroic gesture, the big tragic moment, characters descending into complete villainy, or saving a few people and being brought down in a hail of machine gun fire. It’s a story that ends, but [not] like any movie that I like watching or being in. When it ends, it’s just a stop, and you continue telling the story one way or another: discussions you have with people, using your imagination. Yes, we know what happened to Germany after the screen goes black in “Good,” but we don’t know what John Halder did any more than we know what the family in “A History of Violence” did after that dinner. We don’t know what happened to Nikolai in “Eastern Promises,” either. I like stories that leave you wanting more, leave you wondering, but don’t tell you everything.
What do you hope people will glean from its open-endedness?
Just the title itself, which is the title of the play it’s based on: it’s not “Good” in quotes, it’s not “Good…,” it’s not “Good??” It’s just “Good,” not even a period. What does that mean? Well, that’s up to you. How much does John Halder know, how much doesn’t he know, and how much is he denying and when, about being on the wrong path? Only you yourself know if you’re making too many compromises, if by trying to pick your battles, go along, get along, make ends meet, make a different from within, or however you want to justify inaction, indecision, compromise. When have you gone too far? When have you crossed some personal line? It’s subtle. It respects the audience’s intelligence. It doesn’t try to give you some cathartic conclusion so that you can disengage, look at it as something in a time capsule. “Oh yeah, the period details were nice, and those crazy Germans,” or whatever.
But does subtlety work in this cultural landscape, as these final days of Bush-era America wind down?
What doesn’t work is voting and then checking out for four years. We keep learning that. I say that because no matter how democratic an administration is, how well-intended it seems to be or actually is, how great a candidate is… elected officials, and governments overall, have surviving as their primary objective. Staying in power. Whether they do so for what they think is the common good or not, it doesn’t really matter. Pinochet and Barack Obama both have the same primary goal, and that’s to be president and stay president as long as allowed. One of the main ways that leadership stays in power is by, in various ways, convincing people that they should just let those who are in government govern: “Trust us. Trust me. Just let us take care of things. Stay out of it.” Your opinions don’t really matter. You are isolated. You are insignificant.
Whether it’s directly stated or not, that’s really how you feel in society a lot of times, whether it’s Germany in the ’30s or the United States in 2008. It’s more important than ever, even more important than under Bush, for people to keep an eye on who is president and what the government is made up of. It’s only by the efforts made by those who elected Barack Obama that he will feel his conscience is pricked, that he will be egged on to do certain things. Otherwise, he’ll fall back into, as I think he’s doing by the people he’s appointing, playing it safer and safer. People say, “Well, let him get started.” No, you have to start now, and keep it up continually. Once he settles in, six months or a year from now, then he’s in that pattern, and those are the people he works with and that’s the access you have. Insist on having more access now than we’ve had for a long time as citizens, and you’ll have that. It’ll be part of the deal. Bobby Kennedy wasn’t against the Vietnam War initially. It was the movement that he inspired that drove him to see that it was politically expedient and right to speak his conscience, which was: “It’s not right to be there.”
So you’re wary that now that Obama’s been elected, people have breathed that collective sigh of relief and gone back to apathy?
Yeah, I do to some degree. Some people are like: “Come on, lighten up. When will you liberals be happy? You got what you wanted.” My overriding concern is for any nation that takes for itself the mantle of imperialist power, which is what we are, economically and militarily — a different model than, say, Spain or France, but nonetheless, that’s what it’s about. This idea that even Obama speaks about: “If I feel we need to, we’ll just attack Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela or wherever the hell we think we need to protect our interests in.” Our particular idea of democracy and quote-unquote “freedom,” that’s no different from Clinton, Bush or Nixon… or Kennedy! [laughs] Since World War II, our aims and actions have been imperialist as far as our government, no matter how democratic we may have seemed to be at home, and I don’t see that changing in a big way: the way the military is used, the ridiculous expenditure on weapons, and the lack of real universal health care, something that [Dennis] Kucinich was calling for; not what Clinton or Obama was calling for, that’s not really universal health care. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying, any more than under Bush change seemed impossible.
Another thing that I think is really important is that Bush, Cheney, all those people, they need to be held morally accountable. By doing nothing, the way [Nancy] Pelosi and others have done nothing, it’s always going to be a black mark on our history: the obvious international and federal crimes, acts of treason, human rights violations and environmental crimes. Even though they’ll probably get pardoned or just get off, they need to stand there and answer for these things.
When I say that, people say: “Oh come on, just let it go. They’re out.” I say that’s the same argument, and it’s not an exaggeration, in the early ’50s when people said, “Let’s heal the wounds. Let’s just move on. They’re shouldn’t be Nuremburg trials.” There were some people who thought: “Leave it.” Germans, and other people too, who said: “Do we have to drag these people through this?” Well, yeah!
You were born in the U.S., but you’ve grown up in various places all over the world since childhood. I was thinking about the John Halder character, who is so specific to his time and place, while wondering: How do you identify yourself, culturally, and keep up with all your sociopolitical interests?
Well, first of all, I think it’s that unwritten rule of art that to tell a universal story, you have to do it with specifics, whether it be place, time, the look of a character, all that. There are certain places, either where I was born, New York City, or where I was raised — Argentina, Bartley, the United States — and many other places where I’ve worked, lived, seen landscapes, that I have a nostalgia for. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that it is definitely more important how you are than where you are. You can say, “Oh, I hate X city, I hate that country, or I prefer this city,” but it’s a little bit up to you to find some kind of happiness.
It’s just like movies. People say, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “What characters do you not like?” There’s no character I’ve played that I don’t like, and there’s no shoot that I’ve been on, regardless of how the movie turned out, that I didn’t learn, make one friend, or see something interesting. I’m not really answering your question: where do I feel like I’m from? I’m from lots of places, and I think I’m capable of learning to feel at home in places that I haven’t been to yet. Traveling is probably the number one most effective anti-war weapon there is. I’ve been to Tehran, for example. I happened to go to the city park there, and played a game of pick-up soccer with some Iranian men. I saw the sun come up and go down in Tehran, I saw the mountains, old people, dogs, pigeons, hospitals, things you can find anywhere in the world. It’s much less likely that you’re going to convince me that they are just this thing, that we must bomb Iran. I probably wouldn’t agree that we should bomb anyplace, but those are people. Those are plants, those are animals. The weather changes there. People get up, they eat, they live, they die. It’s much less likely when you know a place, you know?
You’ve gained fans and critical acclaim of your painting, photography and poetry. Does it hurt or help your other creative interests to be most well known as Viggo Mortensen the movie star?
It works both ways. You could make an argument that being in the movies probably makes people not take the painting and photography as seriously. On the other hand, people go because of the movies, and then they get there and can judge for themselves. It’s all kind of connected. I don’t really worry about it. It’s what I enjoy doing, and whether people like it or not, I’m satisfying myself and trying to do it as honestly and thoroughly as I can. If you don’t like “Good,” or a painting I made, and decide it’s not ready enough to show, or a poem I’ve written and read, that’s up to you. To each his own, but I’m doing it first and foremost because I’m learning something. It’s my way of communicating, not just with other people, but with myself. It’s my paying attention, filtering and responding to the world I’m in. It’s my way of participating in life.
“Good” is now open in limited release.
[Photos: Viggo Mortensen in “Good,” THINKfilm, 2008]