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John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is the "good" German: a shy but decent, retiring professor of literature who has just published a novel advocating compassionate euthanasia. He lives with an over-anxious wife (Anastasia Hille), two needy children and a mother with senile dementia. His book research allowed him to investigate his personal predicament further, but he chose, at some risk, to explore the subject within the twisted climate of Nazi ideology. It is not long before John's thesis arouses the interest of the Nazis, and he finds himself summoned to an interview with the local Gauleiter.
The times are uncertain, and John quickly realizes that even small choices can have devastating consequences. A paying research job turns into much more as John finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the Nazi regime. Subtle pressure is applied, and gradually meek disinterest turns into cooperation and then collusion.
As John transforms, the tug-of-war in this intellectual's personal life is painful to witness. As his marriage fails, he finds himself drawn to a charismatic younger womanand one of his students. But it is his lifelong friendship with Maurice (Jason Isaacs), a Jewish psychiatrist, that cuts deepest. As John sheds his professorial jacket for the brownshirt of the Nazi party, he finds that life, and personal choices, carry far more weight than he ever imagined.