A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THE GOOD GERMAN jj
½ 

2006, R, 105 mins.

Jake Geismer: George Clooney / Lena Brandt: Cate Blanchett / Tully: Tobey Maguire / Colonel Muller: Beau Bridges

Directed by Steven Soderbergh /  Written by Paul Attanasio / Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon

THE GOOD GERMAN begs one to contemplate whether or not out-right cinematic mimicry deserves to be labeled as a loving homage

I think it does and Steven Soderbergh is too gifted of a filmmaking maverick to be considered a pure, rip-off artist.  There is no denying his absolute command – and love – of the medium while taking in the gorgeous sights of his passionate salute to the film noirs of the Hollywood’s Golden Age.  No matter how opulent THE GOOD GERMAN looks and how meticulously it is crafted, a homage is only great if it (a) remains faithful to the films it was inspired by and (b) crafts a story and characters that garner our genuine interest.  By this criteria, THE GOOD GERMAN gets it half right.

If Soderbergh wanted to be daring and adventurous as a director with the film, then mission accomplished.  THE GOOD GERMAN astutely reveals his scholarly love of the cinema of the past, more specifically classic film noirs and war films, like THE THIRD MAN and CASABLANCA, the latter work resembling the film most blatantly.  If anything could be said in the film’s defense then it is that it is definitively derivative.  The aims here are not for amalgamating the aesthetic choices of the films from 50-60 years ago and mould them with modern advances.  Far from it.  What Soderbergh does in the film is something even more inspired: he wants his film to be made and look exactly like a film from the 1940's would.  No other film from the present has felt more like it was made in the past than THE GOOD GERMAN.  That, in a way, is a true testament to Soderbergh's skills behind the camera.  Only an incredibly gifted talent could have pulled this film off.

His stylistic choices are surely intriguing.   He shot THE GOOD GERMAN in a purely old-school, old Hollywood approach.  By old school I mean that he banned the types of modern cameras and sophisticated zoom lenses that are common place today.  Furthermore, no contemporary special effects are utilized (in many shots, clunky and static rear-projection effects dominate the backdrops).  Soderbergh also used old-fashioned sound techniques, like not using wireless body microphones.  Sound was recorded the old way with a hand operated boom mike, which meant that the actors had to enunciate loud and clear, which further makes them perform like the actors of the past.  More importantly, he used harsh, incandescent lights to provide unnatural lighting in the black and white photography.  The lushness of the ominous shadows and bright highlights provides for a truly striking visual experience.  Those that have never seen a black and white film in a theatre owe it to themselves to see THE GOOD GERMAN on a big screen.  This is the most gorgeous photography I’ve seen in many a moon.  The fact the he also shot the film on studio back lots assisted with this control of light and shadow.

Even the film’s literal projected shape on the screen owes more to classic Hollywood standards.   Most features pre-widescreen era were shot with a 4:3 ratio (or squarer ratio, like that of a TV).  Soderbergh shot the film in a 1:66:1 ratio, which basically necessitated modern theatres (which are not equipped to handle that ratio) to play the film on screen with black bars projected on the sides.  Again, this – and everything else mentioned – was intuitively engineered to create an experience of watching a classic movie.  On these levels, THE GOOD GERMAN is an total triumph.  The film is a masterful exercise in filmmaking craft and technique.  It most certainly will be required viewing in many filmmaking courses in the future.

Buuut…beyond its style…is there any real substance to THE GOOD GERMAN?  Not really.  This is the main problem with the film – it’s primarily interested in artifice and sacrifices an involving plot and impressionable characters along the way.  The plot is sluggish, slow moving, and confusing at times, the relationships between characters are not clearly defined during much of the film, and the performances themselves kind of strike bland notes. 

The film stars decent and highly respectable talent – from George Clooney (now in his fifth Soderbergh film), Tobey Maguire, and the great Cate Blanchett, but they are all – more or less – playing film archetypes more than real, flesh and blood characters that we have a rooting interest in.  Whether or not we are to respect the actors for their adherence to playing up to the performance norms of yesteryear is debatable.  Yes, their work kind of parallels the artistry of the film in terms if its integrity to past films, but this also leads to the characters being lost in the limelight.  The actors become tools, not personas, in the film.  Even worse, the film places forgettable characters in a wickedly over plotted screenplay.

The story itself is based on Joseph Kanon’s 2001 book of the same name and – on some levels – it generates more than a fleeting similarity to CASABLANCA.  We are taken to Berlin immediately following the German surrender in July of 1945 and now that the city is a bombed out wasteland void of soldiers fighting.  Journalists swarm in to cover the upcoming Postdam conference.  It is here where we meet a famous war correspondent named Jake Geismer (Clooney, trying his best to play a Bogart part) who was in Berlin before the war.  Now, he is in the city to cover “The Big Three” who now want to look at the remains of the victories and divide up everything between them. 

Beyond his basic assignment, Geismer starts to cross paths with “old dames” in his life.  He is escorted around by his driver Tully (Tobey Maguire, refreshingly playing well against type here) and at least he comes across as a likeable lad, but it soon becomes apparent that he is involved with some rather unscrupulous dealings with Sikorsky (Ravil Issykanov), a Russian general.  This involves Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, stealing some of Marlene Dietrich’s DNA with her seductive performance), a former love of Jakes (I know, you’re thinking of all the gin joints in the world…she had to…ah…never mind). 

It seems she is Tully’s lover, which complicates matters for Jake.  Beyond this, things get really dicey when Tully’s body is discovered at Potsdam, and then Jake starts asking some questions.  It appears that Tully’s dealings may or may not have something to do with Lena’s dead (or is he?) husband, Emil (Christian Oliver).  Emily was (or is?) a brilliant rocket scientist, whose service would – no doubt – be invaluable to either of the two future Super Powers.  Yet, when more and more details surface and Jake finds himself even more deeply embroiled in the middle of a political mystery, he begins to realize that him hooking back up with Lena may not be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Again, the main problem with THE GOOD GERMAN is that it is way, way too convoluted for its own good.  The story is confusing and is sketchy on precision and focus.  Characters come and go, plot points are revealed and dead ends are reached, double crosses occur, etc., all while I am forcing myself to make sense of it all.  The film lacks build up, tension, and a satisfying conclusion.  Granted, the script deserves merits for covering some interesting moral grounds (like the nature war crimes, when one can be forgiven for them, and are the victors really the heroes when they use Intel provided by former war criminals).  However, the film never tantalizes us on these levels because it basically does not allow us to truly care about anything or anyone in the film.

This brings me to the performances, which are serviceable at best.  As stated, they seem at the mercy of the film’s style.  Tobey Maguire is good in his underwritten and marginal role as a racist, hot-tempered bully, and Cate Blanchett has a field day playing a femme fetal with questionable motives and an even darker history.  She’s awfully fun to watch, but Clooney is another story.  Granted, many stars wished that they had his likable and bankable screen presence.  I have always liked Clooney's smooth, easy-going bravado.  Yet, in THE GOOD GERMAN he has never been blander.  He looks good in uniform and fires off the rapid paced dialogue that was in vogue for these period noirs, but he does little with making Jake an invigorating and memorable screen presence.  He lacks heated chemistry with Blanchett and – more or less – he seems to phone in his swaggering performance a bit too much here.

Still, Soderbergh’s film looks absolutely sensational.  Using a combination of archival war footage and his own backlot recreations, Soderbergh makes THE GOOD GERMAN thoroughly intoxicating as a visual experience.  He obviously knows the type of lush and dreamlike imagery that permeated the noirs of the past, and he paints every frame of THE GOOD GERMAN with just these types of flourishes.  One of his choices seems very perplexing in hindsight: the inclusion of nudity, scenes of sexuality, and many uses of four letter expletives.  Although common-place today, their inclusion were absolutely unacceptable by the Censors of the 40’s.  Why, then, would Soderbergh include contemporary vulgarity when he is trying to make such a rigidly loyal salute to classic films that would never have such content?  Beat's me.  I am not prudish when it comes to such content, but its usage here seems counter-productive against the whole effect.  I mean, Bogart never had to say "fuck" to get a point across.

There is no doubt at all that lovers of film noirs will have a glorious time drinking all of the terrific visuals of Steven Soderbergh’s THE GOOD GERMAN.  On a level of mimicking the more indelible classics of the 40’s, the film has a level of unimpeachable precision and detail. THE GOOD GERMAN, most of the time, never feels like a film from 2006.  It is a pitch perfect exercise if exploring old-fashioned cinematic craft and techniques and utilizing them to make a film that purposely feels dated by six decades.  On those levels, Soderbergh has crafted something memorable.  Yet, the near fatalistic problem with the film is that everything around the majestic art direction and cinematography is so utterly forgettable.  Soderbergh, to his credit, is a filmmaker that has little to prove.  He is one of the more respected directors of the last ten years and made one of the best films of the current decade in TRAFFIC.  In GOOD GERMAN he more than passed the test of seeing if he had the goods to make a 1940’s classic film.  Well Steven, you passed with flying colors as you have made a loving and beautiful looking tribute to old Hollywood.  Now, it’s time to move on the better things.  You’ve proved your command of style, now you should go back to something with substance.

 

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