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Friday, Sept. 21, 2007
'The Good German'
Cool '40s style, but no substance
Director Steven Soderbergh has a habit of confounding expectations. After his win at Cannes and subsequent commercial success with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" in 1989, Soderbergh released a series of increasingly opaque films, culminating in 1996's crackpot "Schizopolis." This nearly ended his career, but he made a strong Hollywood comeback with "Out of Sight," which also launched his fruitful partnership with George Clooney.
Soderbergh managed to land dual Best Picture Oscar nominations in 2000 with "Traffic" and "Erin Brokovich." ("Traffic" would take home the statuette), and then cemented his commercial bankability with "Ocean's Eleven" in 2001.
And yet, at the peak of his success, the director chose to do a remake of an obtuse art-film by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. "Solaris" was brooding and brilliant, a deep-space meditation on loss and obsession, "Vertigo" re-imagined as sci-fi. It bombed at the box office, though — presumably due to lack of lightsabers — and Soderbergh went even further out there with "Full Frontal," a star-studded but diffuse and convoluted look at celebrity.
Soderbergh paid for his sins with "Ocean's Twelve" and "Ocean's Thirteen," and now he's indulging his willful side again. This time it's with "The Good German (in Japan titled 'Saraba Berlin')," a black and white homage to 1940s films such as "Casablanca" and "The Third Man." Soderbergh took this to the extreme of embracing '40s studio setups; only a single camera was allowed, with no zoom lenses or body mics.
Everything was shot on soundstages, and some bits were superimposed over back projections of archival footage of war-ruined Berlin, a cheesy effect to modern eyes, but redolent of the era.
For Soderbergh, this is obviously a fascinating exercise in style, but what about the rest of us? While it's always a rare treat to see a major filmmaker work with the aesthetics of black and white cinematography, and while this does put one into an appropriately 1940s mind-set, the film ends up having little but style to recommend.
"The Good German" is set in the immediate postwar Berlin of 1945. The American and Soviet militaries control the western and eastern sectors of the city respectively, and suspicion has set in between the former allies. We meet Tully (Tobey Maguire, exuding some nastiness for once), a corporal who is heavily involved in the black market, whose mistress is a prostitute named Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, rehashing her Katharine Hepburn role from "The Aviator.") Like many Germans in the impoverished, war-devastated city, she wants out, and is pushing Tully to get her papers to emigrate.
Tully's military duties have him in the motor pool, and he's assigned to drive around reporter Jake Geismer (George Clooney), who's in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, which would divide up Europe between the war's victors. As coincidence would have it, though — and coincidence is the lifeblood of lazy writers — Jake used to be Lena's lover in prewar Berlin, and is rather shocked to see her again.
Tully has far less affection for his mistress, though, and shops her to the Russians for a high price, who pay because they know that American security are looking for her missing husband, Emil, who worked on Germany's V-2 military rocket program.
The plot thickens with a murder, and Jake — whose only interest is helping his former lover, a classic fall-guy position in film noir — finds himself being manipulated by all sides: the Americans, the Russians, even Lena herself. There's something in this Jake of Jack Nicholson's Jake in "Chinatown" — no matter what actions he takes, the corruption and cynicism are impenetrable. It's a very '70s, fatalist worldview (see "The Last Goodbye" or "The Last Detail") that's been grafted onto this '40s montage.
Unfortunately, the plot — based on a book by Joseph Kanon but significantly altered by screenwriter Paul Attanasio — is damn near incomprehensible. "The Good German" tries so hard to be "Casablanca" it hurts — even including a farewell scene on airport tarmac between Lena and Jake — but it's lacking precisely everything that made "Casablanca" enjoyable. It's a downer film that offers an interesting historical perspective in lieu of the current American occupation of Baghdad, but too-cool-to-admit-it romantics can look elsewhere.