Instead of a deeply involving present-tense drama, we get an essay on how such dramas used to look and work.
Post World War II Berlin was a city of ruins up for grabs. The center of a country split into quadrants run by the Russians, Americans, the French and the British, it was clearly ripe for the taking. Politicians, prostitutes and black marketeers seized whatever opportunities they could.
Amid this backdrop arrives world weary US war correspondent Jacob “Jake” Geismar (George Clooney channeling Bogart). He’s back in Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference for “The New Republic” and picked up at the airport by his assigned driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire). Tully is an opportunist with a violent streak and involved in his own ambiguous activities in the city trying to get his prostitute girlfriend Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) and her much wanted missing scientist husband out of Germany.
Before you can say “Casablanca” it appears that Jake knows Lena, too. Intimately. Although he did not come to Berlin for the waters, he is very much misinformed. The Americans and the Russians both want the missing Brandt for their rocket programs and Jake soon finds himself in the middle of a foggy morality where one’s actions can be viewed differently based upon circumstance. “Don’t get fooled by the uniforms,” he’s told by his superior, an American General played by Beau Bridges. “When I was at military academy, we once put a uniform on a mule.”
Now this is the kind of movie a film school student dreams of making one day. A very clever, cerebral concept movie that fuses the conventions and cultural context of an earlier era with a contemporary awareness and ironic detachment. It’s also totally in line with director Steven Soderbergh’s penchant for turning his projects into a series of cinematic stunts. Whether it’s writing, shooting and editing each episode of his HBO series K Street in less than a week, releasing Bubble simultaneously to theaters, Cable-TV and DVD, or making two separate films back-to-back about Che Guevara, Soderbergh delights in a certain kind of
personal challenge that almost asks that his work be graded on a curve.
Like the film students who participate in those 48-hour film challenges where you have to complete a short film in 48 hours or less, there is always a built in excuse for why the thing wasn’t more polished. “Hey, I made it in two days, whaddaya expect?”
But Soderbergh isn’t a film student. At least not formally enrolled. He’s an A-list Academy Award winning director who can command top stars and a real budget from a studio like Warner Brothers. He has the clout to convince them to dump money into a project whose commercial prospects must’ve started out high but were chopped down inch by inch with his art house directorial concept.
Mega-star and Academy Award winner George Clooney, check. Black and white, umm, okayyy. Academy Award Winner Cate Blanchett, Check! Shooting the whole film using 1940s cameras and lenses as well as rear screen projection. Hmmm. I guess so. “Spider-Man” himself Tobey Maguire as a violent American soldier? Check! Changing the acting styles to reflect the more melodramatic performances of the '40s? Huh? This is based on the best selling novel by Joseph Kanon, right? Sure. But a book is a book and a movie is a movie, OK? Some movies can be about movies themselves, right?
Sure. In fact, that’s what The Good German is really about. No matter that it’s based on a book about whether or not someone is a good or bad German, the movie is more about how the reality of the time was seen through the lens of a Michael Curtiz while he was filming Casablanca. More specifically, how that reality is seen by us today through that lens and our more “worldly” understanding about the period. One aspect is meant to reflect the other.
Now if this were a truly independent film with a lower profile cast, the experimental approach may have worked. But the best selling material, stars and studio bring along certain expectations that are simply subverted here. There is talk of romance but no romance. There is potential for a dangerous thriller that never unfolds. The mystery itself is almost as cryptic as a Harold Pinter play but never gripping.
Soderbergh takes the look and style of classical cinema to shoot a screenplay by Paul Attanasio that is totally modernist in style. The script is broken into three acts, each narrated by and told from the point of view of a separate character. This creates a sense of alienation from the story that intentionally runs against the dream-like narrative immersion that was the overall point of the old studio system. The dialogue acts as a constant shock effect as we expect to hear something more like “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid” and instead get lines like “Now don’t Jew me over the price!"
Instead of a deeply involving present-tense drama, we get an essay on how such dramas used to look and work. Something meant to be examined cerebrally by an audience awakened from their passivity. Everything is played at arm’s length, rubber gloves and condoms pulled on tight.
Less like characters than models for a GQ photo shoot evoking classic Hollywood, both Clooney and Blanchett seem to be wearing clothes that are also too tight for comfort. Clooney, in particular, seems to be glancing at Soderbergh off-camera to see if the take was as phony as it felt. He hasn’t been this stiff since Batman and Robin.
Blanchett lowers her vocal register and comes off as a female impersonator doing Dietrich. The only actor to do anything interesting is Tobey Maguire who somehow got the worst reviews. He’s seems quite aware that he’s been terribly miscast so he takes a strong approach with his character. His Tully is a wildly enthusiastic boy thug like a character from Bugsy Malone in the army now. There is a sense that Tully is way out of his depth, trying to manipulate some master manipulators who almost feel sorry for him. He and Ravil Issyanov as General Sikorsky share perhaps the best scene in the film, as Tully attempts to play his angle on the older Russian officer and gets what he wants not because he’s so clever, but partly because Sikorsky knows the boy is out of his depth and is concerned for him.
Visually Soderbergh mixes up his metaphors, as well. The film is in black and white but it’s often lit in a harsh way with parts of the frame nearly overexposed in a manner not very reminiscent of the ‘40s and framings that seem more like the late '50s and Carol Reed. The use of newsreel footage to establish scenes is clever and effectively blended, however, but not to the genius level of Carl Reiner and Steve Martin’s much underrated comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, which this film seems ready to turn into at any moment.
Contrary to much of my criticisms here, I actually liked quite a bit of what Soderbergh did with this movie. However, I know the difference between entertainment and filmed theory. Perhaps if viewed as a Godardian essay on classical cinema rather than any kind of classical cinema itself it can be appreciated if not actually enjoyed. Soderbergh is a smart director and only a smart director can make a film as coldly calculated as this one. He’s experimented from film to film with a series of styles that seem to conceal his true intentions. Through the veil of experimentation and stylistic masquerade, it’s hard to see what a real Soderbergh film would look like. He’s a great filmmaker, no doubt, but one whose fingerprints are smudged.
The DVD contains nothing extra except for the standard collection of trailers. This is unfortunate since Soderbergh usually provides a very informative and enlightening commentary track to his films, illuminating the meaning behind his thoughtful choices. But it’s clear that Warner Bros. was not interested in losing another dollar to patronize the director’s experimental art.