With all the advances in film technology overpowering the job of the director, artsy Steven Soderbergh decided to go the other way, evoking the golden age of cinema with The Good German, which he shot on a single camera with authentic 1940s lenses and printed entirely in black and white. What resulted, unfortunately, was a film that looked significantly worse than the classics Soderbergh was mimicking, with a neglected storyline thanks to the overt focus on camerawork.
An authentic newsreel introduction sets us in 1945 Berlin, where Truman, Churchill and Stalin are orchestrating a peace agreement in Potsdam to divide the remains of Europe. Hot on their heels is American war correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney), who returns to Berlin for the first time since the ‘30’s, shocked by the devastation the city has endured. Jake is carted throughout the city by the gung-ho Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire), who happily chirps about his “girl,” a reformed prostitute whom he casually offers up to Jake for a small price.
Neglecting his chauffeuring duties to bootleg some high-class American whisky to the Russian General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov), Tully discovers both sides are willing to pay a high price for information about his girlfriend’s supposedly dead husband and tries to turn the situation to his advantage. Meanwhile, Jake shows up at the local bar searching for Tully and instead finds Lena (Cate Blanchett), his former lover and Tully’s current fling. Out of nowhere, Tully flips out and floors Jake (yeah like Maguire could take out Clooney unless he was Spidey,) and rushes off with Lena. When Tully next turns up dead in the Russian sector, Jake strives to solve the crime while desperate to help Lena escape her past.
The Good German begins promisingly enough in a typical noir style - the inciting death launches the characters into a mystery they can’t escape and the shadowy femme fatale constantly undermines the hero. But as the storyline becomes increasingly complicated, it becomes nearly impossible to follow, worsened by the useless narration that switches in perspective from Tully, to Jake to Lena. While the film is much more sexually explicit than the films of the 40’s, it lacks that romantic charm that made so many classics, well, classic. In one of many obvious tributes to Casablanca, Jake and Lena first encounter one another in a bar, and yet there is no “of all the gin joints, in all the world” spark between them. We never really get a sense of their past relationship to qualify it as love, making it nearly impossibly to understand why Jake would do so much for Lena. Meanwhile, the tributes continue with several references to Chinatown, but when a bandaged-eared Jake is told, “forget about it, it’s Berlin” the comment feels cheesy instead of momentous since you haven’t become involved in the characters.
The problem is this isn’t Bogie and Bacall, it’s Clooney and Blanchett, and only Blanchett manages to lose herself in the part. Clooney and Maguire, meanwhile, never settle in to their roles - Clooney doesn’t quite get dark enough for the standard noir hero, and Maguire is just too Peter Parker to be dropping the F-bomb every five seconds. It’s a shame because Blanchett’s Lena is well acted, with a deep German accent highlighting her blood red lips and dark curls, but she winds up feeling out of place among her corny companions.
Despite all the problems with acting and development, Soderbergh’s direction is what really destroys the film. I never thought I’d say this but Soderbergh should have taken some directing advice from butt-buddy George Clooney. While Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck evoked the cold war era perfectly with crisp, clear black and white images, Soderbergh’s scenes are so contrasty that bright whites are almost blinding and shadows obscure faces so much it’s difficult to see who’s on screen. Yes, Soderbergh did an amazing job recreating 1940’s filming conditions, but consequently most of the scenery looks fake, car scenes are sloppily blue screened and the camera work is unsteady at times. Film-buffs will admire his tribute, but the final product is still a mess, no matter how you cut it.
If nothing else, at least Soderbergh’s experiment will remind audiences why the classic films are “classic,” and his countless noir references should provide an ample list of great films any movie-buff should see. Cate Blanchett too, can walk away from the film with a nice clip for her resume, as can some of the supporting cast. But as for Clooney and Soderbergh, hopefully this will be the end to a disappointing relationship (if you didn’t get that Casablanca reference, you definitely won’t like this movie.)
The disc to The Good German is just about as disappointing as the film. The film is offered in English, Spanish and French with subtitles in each language, but has no other features to speak of. No director’s commentary, probably because hearing Soderbergh say, “whoops!” for the fiftieth time would get terribly redundant.
While you can’t really blame the DVD itself, the horrible contrasts are almost more painful on the small screen because it’s easier for your eye to be drawn to them. Lines like “you look like shit Jake,” are unintentionally comedic since you can hardly see Jake’s face it’s so small and obscured in shadow.
If you absolutely must get this DVD, wait for a special edition that might have some special features, hopefully one with novelist Joseph Canon praising the adaptation of his page-turning thriller with biting sarcasm.