The Good German Review
What audiences accept as “reality” on their movie screens changes with the decades. Devices that were transparent story-telling devices then draw attention to themselves now. Steven Soderbergh has gone out of his way to make The Good German like a 1940s film and to a large extent he succeeds. But it’s all a surface, one that film buffs will certainly find fascinating, but which is likely to keep general audiences at arm’s length.
We’re in Berlin in 1945, The War in Europe is over and Churchill, Truman and Stalin are about to decide the fate of the continent at the Potsdam Conference. Berlin is full of journalists. One of them is Jake Geismer (George Clooney) who served in the city before the war. He’s after his former lover Lena (Cate Blanchett) who is also involved with Jake’s driver Tully (Tobey Maguire). But Tully is working the black market and soon is found dead.
Based on a novel by Joseph Kanon, The Good German was made in black and white, Soderbergh (acting as his own DP, under the name Peter Andrews) even going so far as to use authentic lenses from the period, and quite a bit of archive newsreel footage. Production design (Philip Messina) and costumes (Louise Frogley) are spot on. Unfortunately, Soderbergh as a DP isn’t up to the demands of black and white: the result is too contrasty, with dense blacks and blown-out whites. The infinite shades of grey of genuine 40s monochrome looks increasingly like a lost art. A 1945 film would have been shot in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which no commercial cinema can show nowadays: Soderbergh has compromised by shooting the film in the narrower than usual ratio of 1.66:1, with side matting to enable the film to be projected in 1.85:1. Paul Attanasio’s script’s only concession to modernity is to include sexual content and language that the Hays Office would never have permitted in 1945.
Clooney and Blanchett certainly look the part, though Blanchett’s German accent (channelling Marlene Dietrich) occasionally wobbles. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, seems out of place.
The Good German scores high for effort, less so for achievement. As a deployment and critique of a film style of the past, it doesn’t really work. Todd Haynes in Far from Heaven made better use of Douglas Sirkian 1950s melodrama – and still told a story that was genuinely moving to audiences who missed all the references. The Good German is simply uninvolving and largely inert. Paying homage to the final scene in Casablanca was particularly unwise, given how many times it has been spoofed over the years, not least by Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam.