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Good German, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 December 2006
You’d think a movie written by Paul Attanasio ( “Quiz Show,” “Donnie Brasco”) from the novel by Joseph Kanon, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett would be something exceptional. But it never rises above the moderately entertaining—both despite and because of its nature as something close to an experimental film.

The story is set in 1945 Berlin immediately after victory in Europe—the war in the Pacific continues—and it’s a convoluted tale of bitter romance, espionage and dark secrets. So Soderbergh decided to have the film seem as nearly as possible as though it had been made at that time, except for the contemporary use of profanity. First, it’s black and white. He and his crew studied films of that era, evidently focusing on “Notorious” and “The Third Man,” though neither was set in Berlin. They employed left-over footage from Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” (1948), which was shot on location in Berlin. The Warner Bros. logo is from the period; the title lettering could have been seen on any film of the time. Soderbergh uses camera angles, staging and editing in the style of the 1940s. Several times he makes transitions from one scene to another by wipes. The good but sometimes (deliberately) overbearing score by Thomas Newman is carefully styled after movie music of the period. He persuaded his actors to perform in the more declamatory style of the 1940s. Even the Foley (post-dubbed sound) is over-emphatic in a 1940s style.

This aspect of the movie will be fascinating to anyone interested in older movies—but it’s also very distracting and, unfortunately, the story is also too easily muddled by this very distraction. Cate Blanchett is convincing as a doomed former aristocrat (though Jewish) in the Marlene Dietrich/Ingrid Bergman/Alida Valli mode, but her femme fatale qualities get in the way of understanding her character. Tobey Maguire, as Tully, is a cheerful, sunny, all-American kid—and a brutal, greedy black marketeer. Even the reliable, likeable George Clooney seems trapped by the requirements to act in a 1940s style. All of this hard work makes the characters difficult to identify with; the ending echoes that of “Casablanca,” king of all the foreign intrigue romances, but we feel little or nothing for Clooney and Blanchett at this point—and the story demands that we share their pain. Instead, they seem like puppets on a stage.

Journalist Jake Geismer (Clooney), who’d lived and loved in Berlin before the war, is sent back to Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference, in which Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin carved up Berlin—and Europe—thereby inadvertently laying the foundation for the Cold War that followed. Against his wishes, Jake is sent in as an Army captain, a requirement for foreign correspondents working in Berlin. He arrives on the same plane as blowhard congressman Breimer (an unrecognizable Jack Thompson, doing a perfect American accent), and is met by affable Tully (Maguire), the soldier assigned as his chauffeur.
It doesn’t take long for Jake to realize that Tully is a cold-hearted hustler, who even offers his own girlfriend for Jake’s sexual pleasures. Jake is shocked and turns him down. Both Tully and Jake are unaware that Tully’s girlfriend Lena (Blanchett) had been Jake’s lover before the war. Jake knows she married a German, Emil Brandt, who’s evidently dead, and may have been a Nazi.

Jake meets old pal Bernie (Leland Orser), still in the Army, a Jew assigned to help clean up the shreds of the anti-Semitic Nazi regime. We see little evidence of the Nazis, other than the blasted ruins of Berlin itself, though Jake passes a worker chipping a swastika off a wall decoration. He meets another old friend, Danny (Tony Curran), a bartender well aware of Jake’s past with Lena.

Tully returns home to receive a sudden, stunning beating by someone lurking in his room; all we can make out of his assailant is that he’s in an American Army uniform. And then Tully ends up dead in Potsdam, which is inside the Russian zone. He was shot in the back, and his body is found in a river. Jake is there when it’s pulled out, and he’s immediately seized for questioning by Russian General Sikorsky (Ravil Isaynov), but he’s soon released.

Jake meets Lena’s friend Hannelore (Robin Weigert, “Deadwood”’s Calamity Jane), who, like Lena, has been working as a prostitute. Hannelore’s cynically matter-of-fact about this situation, Lena seems gradually to be worn away by it. She’s dismissive towards Jake, uninterested in Tully’s death. (Why should she care? We saw him beat her.)

The story gains complications like a snowball rolling downhill, but the secret behind all this is something that wasn’t dealt with in movies actually made in the 1940s. It involves rocketry and German scientists, over whom the U.S. and Russia are secretly tussling. As mentioned before, the language is a lot stronger than in 1940s movies; this clashes with the visual style.

All three of the leads give good performances within the confines of the imposed style, although some have said they think Maguire stinks. It’s possible that this is simply because of the clash between the characters he usually plays, including a well-known wall-crawler, and the brutal, cynical bastard he plays here. Clooney is as handsome as any star of the period, and like Beau Bridges, who turns up too, has a timeless look; their faces fit any period of moviemaking. Blanchett, too, looks every inch the classic, tragic European, crushed by events, just barely hanging on. (In this, she’s most like Valli in “The Third Man.”)

The script, however, doesn’t allow the old romance between Jake and Lena to rekindle, and for the film to work the way it’s clearly intended to, that was mandatory. Jake isn’t a deluded naïf like Joseph Cotten in “The Third Man,” and he’s not a burned-out Galahad like Bogart in “Casablanca” or a cynic in love despite himself, like Cary Grant in “Notorious.” We never see him fall back in love with Blanchett, although that’s clearly what’s supposed to be going on.

Lena has a dark, dark secret—but when it’s finally revealed, it seems simply anti-climactic. Yes, it’s something she should keep secret, but in the context of post-war Berlin, her deed seems merely a transgression, not a betrayal of her basic humanity.

What the story needed was a cynical realist in the later part of the story, someone like Harry Lime (from “The Third Man”), who knows what’s really going on, and how little human life has come to mean to him. There needed to be a clash between Jake and someone he once knew, someone he trusts—someone other than Lena. Instead, with the exception of Tully, who’s trying to deceive everyone except Lena, he’s generally right about everyone, and everyone is pretty much what they seem to be. The plot needed a reversal or two, it needed Jake to either wise up or reach a state of jaded despair. Issues are raised that can be discussed, but the talk will be about those issues, not about the movie itself.

Soderbergh is a very talented director, and you never know what he’s going to try next. There aren’t very many directors working in Hollywood who can, as he has, move from low-budget independent movies to all-out Hollywood fluff like “Ocean’s 11,” on to deeply serious studio movies like “Traffic.” While going in yet another direction, he’s stumbled here. “The Good German” (the title, of course, is ironic, like “The Quiet American”) was probably not the story on which to try this experiment of making a 1940s movie in the 21st century. For movie buffs, it’s a great treat to watch, but even the most avid buff will deflate as the film progresses. It’s badly paced and does not come to a satisfying climax. “The Good German” is the movie mediocre.

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