Steven Soderbergh, a director who’s made a point of juxtaposing mass-market entertainments like the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise with smaller, more esoteric pictures, has also often seemed more interested in technical experiment than in content; but with “The Good German” he tries to meld all four into a single movie. On the one hand, it’s an attempt to duplicate, both in form and story, wartime classics of decades past–the script, adapted by Paul Attanasio from Joseph Kanon’s novel, is effectively a composite of “Casablanca” and “The Third Man,” and the cinematography and music score aim to replicate the look and sound of those pictures (an effort that reaches its apogee at the very end, in a sequence that apes the conclusion of the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman parting in North Africa pretty slavishly). But by embracing the romance-in-a-suspenseful-context scenario of those forties masterpieces, as well as the theme of skirting morals for expediency’s sake that they delivered, it also works to engage the audience–not cooly distancing them from the narrative the way that “Solaris” or “Full Frontal” or “Bubble” ostentatiously did. As a result the picture seems an odd hybrid of the director’s opposing tendencies. But though fundamentally a stunt, it’s mostly an enjoyable one, especially for lovers of the great heart-on-sleeve studio melodramas-with-a-message of sixty years ago.
The setting is the devastated, divided post-war Berlin of summer, 1945. As the divided city prepares for the meeting of Truman, Churchill and Stalin in nearby Potsdam to remake the map of Europe, American war correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney), who covered Germany in the thirties, returns for the conference. He’s met at the airport by his assigned driver Cpl. Tully (Tobey Maguire), ostensibly an enthusiastic but callow mid-American but, as soon becomes clear, actually an amoral wheeler-dealer who’s happy to provide information and black-market goods to Russian General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov) in the hopes of securing exit papers for his girlfriend, the older, mysterious Lena (Cate Blanchett), who’s been forced into prostitution by the country’s collapse. Things become very complicated when it turns out that Geismer and Lena had been involved during his earlier stay in the city,
But this triangle doesn’t last long, for reasons that won’t be revealed here. Suffice it to say that it’s all entwined with the jockeying of the two new world superpowers over control not so much of territory but of the know-how of the scientists who had masterminded the Nazi missile program during the war. Lena, as it turns out, was once married to a man who’d served as an aide to one of the stars of that project, and though he’s supposed to be long dead, he’s still a focus of interest for both Sikorsky and U.S. military chief Col. Muller (Beau Bridges). As the convoluted plot proceeds, there’s plenty of double-crosses, surprise revelations and upper-echelon skullduggery involving not only all these characters but Bernie Teitel (Leland Orser), an old buddy of Geismer now tracking down war criminals, and U.S. Congressman Breimer (Jack Thompson), a practitioner of realpolitik who’s a counterpoint of Geismer’s romantic illusions.
“The Good German”–a title that refers, ultimately, to Lena’s husband Emile (Christian Oliver)–isn’t entirely successful in aping its models. Clooney, stern and dour, doesn’t quite fill the bill as a Bogart-like loner, and even Maguire’s nice turn as a farmboy with a streak of larceny and Blanchett’s surprisingly effective one as a Dietrich clone can’t quite make up for his failings. Nor has Soderbergh (who, of course, serves as his own lenser under the name of Peter Andrews) fully mastered the camera techniques of the 1940s cinematographers: the contrasts in his black-and-white images are a mite too exaggerated. Some of the plot turns, moreover, while true to the picture’s models, come across as almost absurd here–Jake might not get beaten up more often than Bogart or Robert Montgomery did in the old days, but it’s a convention that comes across as laughably antiquated in this case.
On the other hand, buffs will get a charge out of watching Soderbergh get as close as he can to the classics, and the final reel–which includes some sequences in the city sewers redolent of “The Third Man” and a murder-in-a-crowd sequence that mimics the Hitchcock of “Foreign Correspondent” as well as that “Casablanca” retread (though with a newly cynical spin)–will invite a smile from the more cinematically literate members of the audience. And one can’t help but get a bang from Thomas Newman’s score, which shows that he can approximate the music of the forties greats even better than the director can the visuals of the period.
Homages don’t get much more homagey than “The Good German.” But if you love its models, and the sheer artificiality of the effort doesn’t bother you, you should have a good time.