We mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.
–Captain Renault (Claude Rains), Casablanca
You’ve seen what months of bombing can do to a city. Imagine one bomb that could do the same thing. One bomb: stick it on the end of a rocket, press a button here, goes off over there. Anywhere, halfway around the world. That’s the future, the future of mankind’s in our hands. It’s our destiny.
–Congressman Breimer (Jack Thompson), The Good German
“I wish I could write,” smiles Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire). “I have some great stories to tell.” And as soon as he says it, you don’t believe him. It’s not that he doesn’t likely have stories to tell, it’s more that you can’t imagine him wanting to tell them for any reason other than his own immediate benefit. The meager returns for a writer wouldn’t be nearly seductive enough.
Tully first appears in 1945 Berlin, holding a chalkboard he’s scrawled with the name of the man he’s supposed to drive to Potsdam, where Truman, Churchill, and Stalin are assembling to “draw the postwar map,” according to The Good German‘s opening epigraph. Capt. Jake Gesimar (George Clooney) is a reporter for The New Republic. If Tully’s the obvious cad, duplicitous and greedy, Jake is the obvious hero, cynical and handsome. Steven Soderbergh’s movie takes up a period look — hard sidelight, internal frames, gorgeous black and white — to underline its attention to and departures from generic formula. Slipping between classic noir and gallant WWII romance, it’s Double Indemnity meets Casablanca, complete with a murder, rear projection, and a femme who looks awfully fatale.
The murder comes early, serving as a metaphor for the dangers of Potsdam. Based on Joseph Kanon’s novel, the movie is thick with betrayals and anxieties, as major and minor players jostle for positions and profits. Skulking around the edges of the Conference, crass but wily Congressman Breimer (Jack Thompson) represents a certain U.S. interest, that is, making use of Nazi scientists, which means getting them out of town and into American research facilities before the trials begin. Working at seeming odds — when it suits both parties — is the Jewish prosecutor Bernie Teitel (Leland Orser), a friend of Jake’s from the old days who knows enough not to trust him, but is invested enough in tracking down German war criminals that he’ll get into bed with whomever will help him do it, be it Jake or the U.S. military.
Jake would be observing all the goings-on firsthand if he hadn’t had his wallet stolen on his first day in town. Unable to do his job, he takes up the murder case, which leads him into direct contact with a very beautiful, angry prostitute with cheekbones like Marlene Dietrich’s. Lena (Cate Blanchett) first appears face down, bent over her bed, as Tully takes the pleasure he’s paid for. His voiceover reveals his utter naïvete, and not in a good way: “You can say what you want about the war,” he sighs, noting the millions of people who died. “But the war was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because when you have money, then for the first time in your life, you understand it, what money does for you, when before, all you understood was not having it. Money allows you to be who you truly are.” That would be, someone who thinks doggy-style indicates dominance.
Banal as he is, Tully does raise a couple of moral questions for the film, as when Jake suggests all Germans knew what was going on and deserve what they get by way of punishment from the war’s winners. “It just doesn’t seem like the American way,” observes wheeler-dealer Tully, “just to lock a person up for something they didn’t have anything to do with.” (That it is exactly the “American way” has become glaringly visible recently.) Just a minute before Tully offered to pimp his girlfriend (asking Jake, “You want an hour with her?”) in the same breath he’s using to describe his deep love for her; suddenly, Tully’s gee-whizzy, love-my-apple-pie affect seems chilling. He kicks the crap out of Jake and punches Lena in the stomach, then pities what he presumes to be her ignorance (“Poor fucking stupid Lena: you don’t know fucking nothing, do you?”). He’s the ugly American galumphing through Europe, grasping, insecure, and cocky all at once.
As such, Tully serves not only as the selectively noble Jake’s foil, but also as the film’s most effective critique of U.S. mucking about in world affairs (at least he’s more overtly repulsive than definitively dodgy Colonel Muller [Beau Bridges]). Where The Good German offers up some regular generic plotting with regard to Lena and Jake (whose shared past evokes that of Rick and Ilsa, even if it is less principled, to go along with the film’s un-generic explicit imagery and language), it insists on Tully’s sheer nerve and idiocy. He thinks he can keep up with insidious General Sikorsky (Ravil Isaynov), who keeps a portrait of Stalin in his dank office and accepts Tully’s deal on “cases of Scotch from Scotland,” stolen from the Conference, but Tully’s not even close to understanding what’s at stake, whatever he thinks he know about “what money does for you.”
And he’s not alone. Like other noiry types, the officers, lawyers, whores, and rocket scientists in The Good German act like they know. But, as Bernie puts it to Jake, when pressed to help solve the Potsdam murder, “Nobody around here’s acting like the war’s over.” Essential systems remain intact. Bernie has access to the voluminous Nazi recordkeeping as he assembles his cases (the camera catches worker chipping off the swastika as Bernie and Jake pass through a hallway en route to an endless, impeccably lit file room), but language and legal forms can’t help anyone comprehend what happened and what’s happing elsewhere.
The film ends with a Stars & Stripes headline concerning the bomb, just dropped on Japan (“Countless killed”). The war’s about to end, the cold war’s already in motion. No matter Jake’s efforts to get Lena out of Berlin (“You can never really get out of Berlin,” she sighs) or discover the truth about a single murder, the film won’t give up a moral high ground. Its visual evocations of 1940s movies only underscore its many deconstructions, of nostalgia, heroism, and political coherence. The bomb, as the congressman notes, became “our destiny” as soon as it became our past.