THE GOOD GERMAN
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, Beau Bridges, Ravil Issyanov, Christian Oliver, Leland Orser, Robin Weigert
MPAA Rating: (for language, violence and some sexual content)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 12/15/06 (limited); 12/22/06 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
It would be easy to criticize The Good German for its multiple script problems (and believe me, I will), but on a purely aesthetic level, this is an ugly looking movie. Steven Soderbergh's homage to 1940s noir cinema stands on its own as evidence that the man should never shoot in black-and-white again. Soderbergh has served as director of photography for a good number of his movies under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, and while other times it might have seemed a way not to bring more attention to his involvement than necessary, his use of the nom de plume in The Good German best serves as a way to hide his involvement. The shame of it all is the movie's post-war Berlin setting is lovingly and authentically recreated, but what good is an ambitious set that isn't filmed properly? Soderbergh's direction of his actors falls incredibly short as well, getting strained performances from his cast, and if he cares even the tiniest bit for the complexities of the plot, it doesn't show on screen. There's nothing going for the movie, really, except its ambition—its heavily marred, totally unrealized ambition.
Just before the Potsdam Conference between Truman, Churchill, and Stalin, Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a war correspondent for The New Republic, arrives in Berlin to cover the conference that will determine the fate of Germany and its people. The driver assigned to him is Corporal Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), a good-old American boy with a nasty mean streak. Tully is up to his own shenanigans in Berlin, swiping Geismer wallet and finding any way to make a few occupation marks on the side. His girlfriend is Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), a hardened woman, forced into prostitution, and Tully is convinced he can get her out of Berlin with him. After he's attacked in Lena's apartment by a man looking for Emil Brandt, Lena's husband, whom she says died in the war, Tully decides to fix a deal with Russian general Sikorsky (Ravil Isaynov) to obtain 200,000 marks for turning over Emil. All of this happens without Jake's knowledge, but when he discovers his driver together with Lena, his former flame, he becomes involved. On the first day of the conference, Tully is found dead, shot in the back, and Jake tries to find out the secrets of his former lover and Tully's murder.
There are a lot of secrets here, most of them indecipherable with Paul Attanasio's convoluted scripting (adapting an over 500 page book by Joseph Kanon into an hour and forty-five minutes certainly cannot get into whatever intricacies the plot may possess), and by the end, but whatever the important mysteries are is really a mystery unto itself. When Lena tells Jake at the end of the movie that he now has the last piece of his puzzle, one can't help envying him the closure, because Attanasio throws far too much out in such a limited space for much to register. The main problem is that the script clearly doesn't understand its characters' motivations, and there's too much inconsistency within the clearly defined motivations of certain characters to make any sense. The major plot points boil down to Jake getting some piece of information, some member of the military brass telling him to give up already, and then either getting beaten up or discovering conflicting or new information from another party. Jake gets beat up a lot in this movie, by the way, and I'd say it's a running gag except for the fact it's not meant to be comical.
It's hard to get involved with these characters for reasons beyond their lack of clear motivations. George Clooney and Cate Blanchett's have a few scenes together, each more stilted than the last. Clooney's debonair style clashes with Jake's obvious naïveté and weakness, and while Blanchett exudes confidence and world-weariness, her performance is sadly stiff. Tobey Maguire plays against type and fails in an over-the-top performance more amusing than menacing. Each of these characters is given a moment of narration, meant to illuminate the story but only adding further frustration for the lack of any clear focus. On the other hand, while the movie itself is in focus, Soderbergh's attempts at capturing the essence of film noir miss by a long shot. With whites far too bleached, blacks that shadow the wrong things, far too much contrast, and far too harsh lighting (even for the 1940s standards Soderbergh thought he was emulating), nothing looks right under his cinematic eye. Actors blend into the background lighting, and it's really just a mess. His almost shot-for-shot homage to Casablanca during the finale set at an airfield is particularly trite and a bit arrogant.
While it's obvious Soderbergh wants to juxtapose the old-school filmmaking style with a more modern, cynical perspective of history, the irony of the contrast is forced. The Good German's skepticism is perhaps its strong point, though, and the debate about whether all of Germany is responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust somehow naturally fits. These are ultimately throwaways though in an experiment too sure of its success to succeed.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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