Good German, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Good German, Steven Soderbergh's film noir homage, is nearly perfect when it comes to style and tone, but it concentrates so single-mindedly on the mechanics of the narrative that it loses sight of its characters. The movie meticulously steps viewers through the Byzantine passageways of its plot while not taking the time to develop protagonists an audience can care about. In the end, while George Clooney and Cate Blanchett may look great, they aren't given more than shells to inhabit. The Good German is at times involving in the same way that any noir film is involving, but it often feels overplotted and the experience of watching it can be exhausting.

The movie is based on the 2001 book by Joseph Kanon (although a lot, especially as it pertains to the ending, has been changed) and takes us into Berlin immediately following the German surrender. It's July 1945 and, with Pottsdam looming, the bombed-out city is swarming with journalists. One of them is celebrated war correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney), who was stationed in Berlin before the war. Officially, he is here to cover the "Big Three" conference. Unofficially, he is looking for his former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). He finds her quickly enough - she is the paramour of his driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire). However, Tully is involved in some unsavory dealings with a Russian general, Sikorsky (Ravil Issykanov), having to do with Lena's supposedly dead husband, an SS scientist named Emil (Christian Oliver). When Tully's body washes up at Pottsdam, everyone begins scurrying to bury secrets and Jake finds himself being dragged deeper into a mystery he wants no part of. As Sikorsky ominously suggests, with what he knows (or is thought to know), Jake might be more safe in the Russian zone than the American one.

This could be considered a "gimmick" film. Soderbergh shot is as if it was being made in 1945, using only the tools, cameras, sound equipment, and lighting of the day. It's in black and white with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. (This is actually an accommodation for today's theaters. All 1940s films were 1:33:1 - the ratio of a television - but many current theaters cannot support that ratio, so it was "upped" to the more standard 1.66:1.) The movie was shot exclusively on sound stages with all location work being done near Los Angeles. As authentic as Berlin looks, none of it is real, except for newsreel excerpts. Stylistically, Soderbergh nails the film noir approach. With the exception of its flouting of the Hays Code (which would have forbidden the violence, profanity, and nudity that appear in The Good German), the director has made a faux-'40s film. To add to the effect, both Clooney and Blanchett appear to be in their element. If one didn't know better, one would assume they were stars of the era. (The illusion doesn't quite extend to Tobey Maguire, who is out-of-place.)

One of Soderbergh's mistakes is to tell the movie from three vantage points. The first third is Tully's, the second third is Jake's, and the final third in Lena's. This fragments the narrative and makes for some strange moments and methods of revelation. One of the normal pleasures of a film noir is following the protagonist as he pursues clues and chases leads, gradually devining what's going on. That really doesn't happen here. The answers to many of the film's mysteries are revealed as a result of a perspective change. There are things Lena knows that Jake doesn't, and as soon as the viewpoint switches from him to her, we are suddenly privy to her information. It's not a satisfying way to unravel the plot.

The movie requires that the viewer pay attention because it covers a lot of territory. There's a moral/ethical aspect to this, but it's presented in a strangely passive manner. Can the war crimes of an individual be overlooked when the war is over if he possesses enough important information to benefit the victors? How much of what one does to survive during a war can be held against him/her when the struggle is over? These are compelling questions, and they formed the backbone of many of the 20th century's most infamous war crime trials. Although The Good German addresses these issues, it does so in a clinical fashion. There's no heat, so the drama is lukewarm.

The biggest obstacle for viewers of The Good German is learning to sympathize with the characters who, more often than not, appear to be pawns of the screenplay. These are not compelling individuals. Jake seems to spend half the movie getting knocked on his ass. Lena skulks in the shadows, looking and acting like the perfect femme fatale. And Tully, a belligerent bully, isn't in the movie long enough to grow a personality (he's killed before the one-third mark). It's tough to get into a movie when you don't care about anyone on screen.

If Soderbergh's ambition was to make a 1940s movie in the way films were made in the 1940s, he has succeeded. Unfortunately, it's mediocre, not good. Lovers of film noir may appreciate The Good German - especially when it echoes the likes of The Third Man and Casablanca - but the affinity may be more for its style than its other qualities. The Good German is likely to leave mainstream audiences cold. I admire some of what Soderbergh has attempted, but I have to conclude that this experiment has ended with mixed results.

Good German, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1