Steven Soderbergh tries to make one like they used to and comes up short with “The Good German.” A post-World War II drama set amid the rubble of a bombed-out Berlin, this black-and-white backlot production endeavors to recapture the bitter romanticism of such ’40s studio artifacts as “Casablanca” and “A Foreign Affair” while adding contemporary frankness. But doing what came naturally to Hollywood craftsmen 60 years ago is clearly harder than it appeared, as Soderbergh can’t duplicate the look and feel of the old-fashioned entertainments he means to honor. Despite the starry cast, the public will steer clear, leaving the director’s latest honorable but failed experiment to artfilm buffs.
Soderbergh has made much of how he used actual ’40s lenses and just one camera, embraced studio-confined limitations and otherwise tried to direct much as Michael Curtiz would have done. But aficionados hoping to luxuriate in a full-blown simulation of Golden Era style will come away disappointed.
“The Good German” has little of the luster, sheen and pictorial nuance of a top-flight Hollywood picture of the old school. The contrasts are far too extreme; many compositions contain large areas of impenetrable black, and faces and other light objects are overexposed to the point of being washed out. Pic looks less like a 1942 Warner Bros. melodrama than a 1962 “Twilight Zone” episode intercut with background shots from Rossellini’s “Germany Year Zero.”
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Based on an estimable 2001 novel by Joseph Kanon, Paul Attanasio’s sturdy script could scarcely boast a time and place more ripe with international intrigue and world-weary cynicism. In July 1945, Truman, Churchill and Stalin are on their way to Potsdam, outside of Berlin, to carve up the broken remains of Europe, with results that would help establish the boundaries for the foreseeable East-West stand-off. But already, the deadly cat-and-mouse games that became the stuff of countless Cold War thrillers is being played out among the wartime allies in the four zones dividing Berlin.
Entering the fray is Jake Geismer (George Clooney), an American war correspondent returning to the capital for the first time since the late ’30s. Startled at how completely the city has been destroyed — a stark, 1.33 ratio docu opening credits sequence provides vivid first-hand evidence — Jake is less concerned about his journalistic responsibilities than he is about finding Lena, the German woman he was forced to leave behind.
The movie’s rhythms seem off from the outset. A long sequence of the young Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire) driving Jake into town from the airport feels awkward; the vehicle doesn’t appear to be moving at the correct rate compared with its docu backdrop, Maguire is too cranked up while Clooney is too subdued, and the characters do not establish a rapport. Right out of the box, pic puts the viewer at arm’s length.
Tully narrates the film’s first section, a responsibility later assumed by Jake and then Lena. Enthusiastically acted by Maguire, Tully could be the immature younger brother of William Holden’s Sefton in “Stalag 17,” an opportunistic black-marketer for whom his position in the motor pool creates no end of possibilities; he supplies American whisky to the head of the Russian sector, General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov, excellent), and doesn’t hesitate to offer Jake an hour with his girlfriend, who is none other than Lena.
Lena (Cate Blanchett) becomes the most intriguing character in the picture, partly by default; Tully is found murdered 24 minutes in — there’s no way around revealing this development, as all else hinges on it — and Jake remains an unnatural man of action. But the men merely put into relief the extent to which Lena’s life is, in every possible way, in extremis. She suffered horribly during the war, is now a prostitute, her husband is apparently dead and all she wants is to get out of Germany.
With dead dark eyes, a dramatic slash of a mouth and a sullenness that encases whatever is left of her heart and soul, Lena is a vivid, if not exactly unique, creation, and Blanchett soon all but disappears into the forlorn, desperate character. She summons shades of Dietrich, to be sure, but brings Lena fully to life, at least to the extent she has life left in her.
After Tully’s body, his uniform stuffed with money, is fished out of the river at Potsdam, the plot gears start turning in earnest, putting the film more squarely on the rails. Jake, under some suspicion himself, begins poking his nose into areas where it’s not appreciated; he’s warned off his investigation by the American military governor, Colonel Muller (Beau Bridges), while army attorney Bernie Teitel, an interesting character nicely underplayed by Leland Orser, provides Jake with useful information from the Russian police report.
Ultimately, however, all roads lead to Lena, who cagily plays a long game by holding her big cards very close to the vest. Despite her obstinacy, Jake romantically persists in trying to help her, only to be repeatedly beaten up for his trouble. Akin to Jack Nicholson’s nosy Jake in “Chinatown,” Clooney’s nosy Jake is forced to wear a bandage on his ear for a good part of the time.
Looming behind the intricate personal dramas is the specter of momentous geopolitical and ethical issues, notably the behind-the-scenes struggle between the Yanks and Ruskies to snare the services of the top German scientists, moral and legal considerations be damned.
Clooney underplays in laconic fashion as he tries to round out a man whose seen-it-all attitude cloaks a romantic heart. But both he and Soderbergh seem afraid or unable to reveal the conviction for melodrama necessary to put across a story like this. For actor and director, the project seems like trying on a new coat, and it doesn’t fit either of them. Final scene reps the film’s one explicit homage to “Casablanca,” an ill-advised move in that it forces the inevitable negative comparison.
Genuine pleasure is generated by Philip Messina’s production design, which has made a convincing mess of numerous standing backlot street sets to convey a ruined Berlin; Louise Frogley’s costume designs, which revel in the eclectic nature of what deprived people scraped together to wear and Thomas Newman’s voluptuous score, which draws attention to itself at times, but nonetheless achieves discordant moods and levels of complexity rare in film music these days.
As for the lensing, Soderbergh, working under his nom de camera Peter Andrews, has become a handy and effective d.p. on his own films when working in color. But black-and-white is a different discipline. So even though the director had worked in the format once before, on his second picture, “Kafka,” and Clooney had similarly shot “Good Night, and Good Luck” on color stock from which the hues were then drained out, it’s a pity that, just this once, Soderbergh couldn’t see clear to hiring an old pro who knew all the tricks and could have concentrated exclusively on this aspect of the picture.