Movie Review: The Good German
FILM REVIEW: THE GOOD GERMAN
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Forget it, Jake. It's Berlin. Everybody tells this to the foreign correspondent played by George Clooney in "The Good German." But in the city's bombed-out remains following World War II, Jake Geismer cannot forget what Berlin held for him before the war: an affair with a married German woman lousy with secrets.
For Jake, rekindling the past trumps all else. Director Steven Soderbergh feels the same way. And he has made a most peculiar and unsatisfying film to prove it.
Taken from Joseph Kanon's novel, "The Good German" finds Soderbergh acting as his own cinematographer and editor, as he has on other projects. (The names in the credits are pseudonyms.) This time he has mounted a supremely artificial project, hermetically sealed inside itself, using the old lenses, the old-style boom microphones, the old satirized-to-death screen wipes, whisking us from one scene to another. Soderbergh uses wipes like they're Handi Wipes - disposable gimmicks by the case.
On the eve of the Potsdam Peace Conference, Geismer returns to Berlin on assignment for Collier's magazine. He hopes to pick up with Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, wearing hats stolen from the collection of Ingrid Bergman and Alida Valli) where they left off before the war. The murder of a young American racketeer (Toby Maguire) complicates Geismer's interests, since none of the brass seems interested in solving the crime.
Adapter Paul Attanasio heightens the importance of the Maguire character, which is too bad because Maguire's not the man for it. As fine as he can be in the right role, here he takes a wryly satiric approach to dialogue that's mighty arch to begin with. He performs just outside his role, not in it.
Blanchett, by contrast, is such a witty performer and such a good technician, she can take your mind off the suffocating style. Clooney, too, knows what he's doing, though his part is more plot conduit than fully fleshed character.
Like the novel, the film owes a great deal to the moral rot and multinational factions of "The Third Man." Carol Reed's classic, written by Graham Greene, was as un-studio an English-language thriller as the postwar era produced. Little in that film relates to the studio techniques and trappings so appealing to Soderbergh. So you have a visual contradiction at the core of "The Good German": Soderbergh imagines a bizarre amalgam of Hollywood backlot sudser done up in neorealist trappings. The director hasn't absorbed any of the old techniques naturally. All the while, composer Thomas Newman's uber-'40s strings and timpani (heard right from the start, under a retro-style WB logo) thrash the characters into submission. (He's composing in a style paying homage to his father, Alfred Newman, though it comes off like second-rate Max Steiner.)
Soderbergh keeps the lighting harsh throughout, the white-hot whites smacking up against the pitch-black blacks. Why? Where's the subtlety? It was there in the old days. Consider what directors such as Michael Curtiz were accomplishing in films ranging from "Casablanca" to the later, gorgeously shadowy "Young Man With a Horn" (1950). The look of those films wasn't primarily about Expressionist extremes; it was more about silky gray details and velvety contours, and how the actors slip in and out of them. Also, Curtiz was a master at choreographing a scene so that the actors were kept busy and in active counterpart with the camera's movement.
"The Good German" is just stiff. When Soderbergh tries one of those patented swoop-in-on-the-diagonal moves at a key dramatic moment, the effect is comic. And at that precise moment, the story starts dying a slow, oxygen-deprived death.
"The Good German"
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Paul Attanasio, based on Joseph Kanon's novel; cinematography by Peter Andrews; edited by Mary Ann Bernard; production design by Philip Messina; music by Thomas Newman; produced by Ben Cosgrove and Gregory Jacobs. A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: R (language, violence and some sexual content).
Jake Geismer - George Clooney
Lena Brandt - Cate Blanchett
Corporal Tully - Tobey Maguire
Colonel Muller - Beau Bridges
General Sikorsky - Ravil Isyanov