George Clooney as Capt. Jacob ‘Jake’ Geismer
Tobey Maguire as Patrick Tully
Cate Blanchett as Lena Brandt
Beau Bridges as Colonel Muller
Leland Orser as Bernie Teitel
Tony Curran as Danny
Jack Thompson as Congressman Breimer
Dominic Comperatore as Levi
Dave Power as Lieutenant Schaeffer
Ravil Isaynov as General Sikorsky
Robin Weigert as Hannelore
David Willis as Franz Bettmann
Christian Oliver as Emil Brandt
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh’s experiment in noir filmmaking is a bit jarring in its precision to capture the look and feel of ’40s-’50s era movies, even to the point of sampling shots from the classics, but it succeeds on other levels due to its intriguing story and characters.
World War II is almost over, and U.S. war correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney) arrives in Berlin to document the Potsdam Peace Conference, where the Allied Nations discuss what to do about Germany and its crimes against humanity. It doesn’t take long for Jake to reconnect with his old flame Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), now sleeping with the opportunistic Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire), who just happens to be Jake’s driver. As Tully tries to capitalize on the fact that many people are looking for Lena’s missing scientist husband Emil, Jake tries to get her out of the country only to get caught in the web of lies surrounding the Allies’ plans for Germany.
There’s a lot of things you can say about the fifth collaboration between Steve Soderbergh and George Clooney as director-actor: it’s slow, it’s dull, it’s pretentious and even somewhat irrelevant to the times, but you know what? “The Good German” is also an impressive attempt at creating a film noir using only the techniques of the era in which it takes place and an intriguing tale of a time in history that hasn’t been very well covered in modern Hollywood films. (That being said, Robert De Niro’s similarly titled “The Good Shepherd” has a segment set during the same period covering some of the same ground.)
“The Good German” isn’t a political thriller as much as it is a noir murder mystery with the fall of Berlin as its backdrop. It’s a rich character piece relying heavily on the relationship of the three main characters, switching the narrative from one to another as if to divide the film into three equal sections. The movie starts out pretty slow being driven mostly by its dated dialogue, written to fit the time. As Jake discovers a murder, he begins to investigate it at the same time as working to get his former lover Lena (Blanchett) out of the country, since she can’t possibly have anything to do with the war crimes that other Germans are being charged for. And yet, the American military has a file on Lena in their archives that has something to do with her missing husband Emil. As the right hand man of Nazi scientist Franz Bettman, Emil possesses notebooks full of Nazi secrets that could be valuable to both the Americans and Russians.
It’s pretty well known that some Nazi scientists got away with murder after WWII, since the Nazi brain trust was too valuable to waste, instead being divided up between the Americans and Russians. “The Good German” revolves around how this concept affects three different people, two of whom are trying to use that knowledge to their advantage. Only Jake seems to have pure motivations for wanting to help Lena and her husband, but he comes across like a cockeyed optimist in the way he allows himself to be manipulated. The premise starts to get more interesting as it goes along, once you realize the implications of the characters’ mysterious actions.
Like last year’s “Good Night, And Good Luck,” the entire film is in black and white, and it looks quite stunning as Soderbergh, presumably shooting himself, uses the light and shadows as effectively as movies like “Good Night” or the Coen Brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” He takes it one step further using the simpler filmmaking techniques of the era, recreating the types of camera angles and movement of those old movies, combined with rare archival footage of the era. The illusion is completed by driving scenes using green screen, simple opening credits and a score by Thomas Newman that’s modeled after the over-the-top film music from thrillers of the era.
As one might expect, it’s jarring to sit in a modern theatre watching a new movie that for all intents and purposes could have been made in the ’40s, even moreso because it stars Clooney in a similar heroic role as he’s played in countless other Soderbergh flicks. Emulating the lead actors of the era, Clooney’s part lacks the outward emotion we’re used to seeing in modern dramas. The role of Jake doesn’t do much for Clooney, since he tends to get beaten up and made to look foolish by his inability to figure out what seems obvious. At least he’s not grossly miscast as is the case with Tobey Maguire, who looks too young and acts way too smarmy to be convincing as the resourceful Corporal Tully. He’s not supposed to be likeable, but fortunately, he’s only in the first third of the movie before the narrative switches to the other two actors, who fit more comfortably into this style of filmmaking.
That’s particularly true for Blanchett, who does an amazing impression of Marlene Dietrich as the sexy vamp who has every man eating out of her hand. Her character has far more depth than anyone else in the film by the nature of the things Lena had to do to survive both before and after the fall of her country. Blanchett does such a fine job delivering a strong and moving performance as this atypical film heroine that you often forget you’re watching her, further solidifying her as one of today’s most capable acting chameleons.
Tragically, Blanchett isn’t on screen nearly as much as Clooney, and the movie drags as it follows Jake’s investigation, leaving the viewer to keep track of all the information he finds. Things pick up towards the end, but the film’s shocking revelations don’t do much to merit the long, slow road it takes the characters to get there.
The Bottom Line:
“The Good German” is an intriguing WWII murder-mystery that should appeal to fans of old-time film noir. By its very nature, it’s a bit dated and imperfect, as Soderbergh’s desire to sample shots from old movies sometimes distracts from story, but Cate Blanchett’s amazing performance does a good job elevating the mundane writing and weaker performances by the rest of the cast.
The Good German opens in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto on Friday with further expansion on December 22 and January 19, 2007.