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Film: Playful Pastiche

Steven Soderbergh's 'The Good German' mixes old-school techniques with new-school candor

By Review by David Wildman · March 14th, 2007 · Movies
  Bogart and Bacall revisited: Cate Blanchett and George Clooney in The Good German.
Warner Bros. Entertainment

Bogart and Bacall revisited: Cate Blanchett and George Clooney in The Good German.

After about 20 minutes of watching The Good German, I was all set to drop a stinky load of outrage on this waste of celluloid. Then something happened. Maybe it was a brain aneurism.

Before I knew it, I found myself totally engrossed.

Steven Soderbergh's film is an experimental exercise in formalism -- an attempt to reproduce a certain period of filmmaking that he obviously reveres. But that's not what's so aggravating about it. What initially makes The Good German so difficult to swallow is that Soderbergh refuses to be consistent with his own purist vision.

He's set up a few strict rules: The film must look, sound and practically smell just like a picture made in the 1940s -- right down to the grainy celluloid, melodramatic acting, stentorian soundtrack and cheesy special effects. This means incorporating details such as fake-looking background projection screens in car-driving scenes, re-creating the only special-effects technology filmmakers had to work with at the time.

But while Soderbergh's taken great care to immerse us in this 1940s milieu, he's also making inexplicable choices that jolt us back to the present day. Characters spew the word "fuck" like it was a Scorsese film.

Graphic violence and carnal encounters are presented so matter-of-factly that the participants might as well be dusting the furniture. (Take, for example, a shot where Tobey Maguire is boning a bored-looking Cate Blanchett from behind.)

Obviously, there's not a single movie from '40s that even hinted at this kind of raunchiness, and by including it he negates all his attempts to be true to the period -- which makes the whole thing seem kind of ridiculous.

Still, amazingly -- as I forced myself to sit through The Good German, cursing at the outrageous historical inconsistencies -- I got sucked in. The damn thing started to become bearable, then interesting, and ultimately intriguing.

Without getting into the specifics of the labyrinthine plot -- (believe me, we'd be here all day, and neither of us has that kind of time) -- Maguire plays young army recruit Patrick Tully, an asshole of devastating proportions whose job is to drive journalist Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) around Berlin for the postwar Potsdam Conference. He also happens to be dogging Clooney's ex-girlfriend, Lena Brandt (Blanchett).

Tully's a Jimmy Olsen gee-whiz type who tries to act like a tough guy, and his performance is so tin-eared that his mere presence made it impossible for me to take the film seriously. I was bracing myself for Maguire to be one of the main characters -- but about 20 minutes in, he abruptly, mercifully, got snuffed out. After that, Clooney took over as the main focus, and things markedly improved.

Geismer is meant to be a variation of Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart's archetypal Casablanca character, an American non-combatant who finds himself drawn by love and other elements into increasingly dangerous participation in the war effort. But there are important differences between the two.

The Bogey classic came out in 1942. When it was being filmed, World War II had already started, but the U.S. wasn't officially fighting. Rick, Bogey's ambivalent saloon owner/reluctant hero, came to represent the dilemma America was feeling about participating in the war.

Geismer, on the other hand, is not much of a hero. If anything, he represents postwar America at its most shell-shocked, trying to grasp for something real and worthwhile after World War II had completely torn reality another asshole.

Clooney's performance starts out low-key. He doesn't bother presenting a tough-guy veneer -- he's already been broken, so the hard edge that eventually surfaces never seems bogus. He's in Berlin as a journalist, but he's mostly interested in repairing the damage the war did to his sex life.

Before the war started, he was an editor in London, and was having an affair with the sultry yet depressing Lena, who worked for him as a stringer. Now he's tracked her down in Berlin, where she's become a hooker with a heart of coal.

Meanwhile, both the Russians and the Americans are frantically looking for her missing (and presumed dead) husband, who was a secretary to an SS officer during the war, and Geismer's proximity to Lena lands him in considerable trouble.

The story unfolds in the days immediately following the German surrender -- a fascinating period of time that doesn't get a lot of attention. As Allied powers converged on German soil to figure out how to cut up the Nazi pie -- and tensions flared between the Russians and the Americans -- Berlin became a potential powder keg.

Soderbergh includes actual documentary footage from that time, and because he's made everything look like a vintage black-and-white movie the material blends in seamlessly.

Sometimes The Good German comes off as a little silly, but I commend Soderbergh for taking the risk. Overall, The Good German beats the odds and hits the mark. Grade: B-



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