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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: The Good German (2006)

* *

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Toby Maguire

They don’t make movies the way they used to… and maybe they shouldn’t try. The Good German is designed as a throwback to classic cinema, marketed to draw comparisons to Casablanca, though it has much more in common with The Third Man. It’s an interesting film, but an interesting failure. It looks fantastic and the story in its bare outlines is intriguing, but the film just ultimately doesn’t pull it off.

The setting is Berlin in the days just after the end of World War II when the various Allied interests meet to decide the new boundaries of Europe. Into this comes Jake Geismer (George Clooney), an army journalist set to cover the story, who barely has time to set foot in Berlin before his driver, Tully (Toby Maguire), lifts his wallet. Tully's a shady character who loves the anything goes attitude of post-war Berlin and is deeply involved in the black market. He's also deeply involved with a German woman named Lena (Cate Blanchett), ostensibly as her boyfriend, though occassionally he acts as her pimp. When he learns that Lena’s husband, Emil – whom she insists is dead – is a valuable commodity due to the job he held with the Nazis during the war, he decides to make a deal with the Russians to hand him over, theorizing that he can get himself and Lena to London before they realize that he never had Emil in the first place. The next morning Tully shows up dead in a river with a great deal of cash strapped to his belt.

Geismer is suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Tully’s death, particularly the fact that Tully was his driver and was involved with Lena, who was Geismer’s girlfriend during an earlier stay in Berlin. Lena is close-lipped about everything to Geismer and wants only for him to go away, but he wants to help her and if he does go away, he intends to take her with him. His investigation puts him at odds with his superior officers, who want Tully’s murder to quietly go away so that they can get on with more serious business, and puts Lena in even greater danger. Also in danger is Emil, whom Lena has been hiding. He is the good German of the title and has information that he wants to hand over to the Americans. Lena helps him because he’s her husband, but also because by doing so she hopes to atone for her own actions during the war – a secret which is revealed only in the film’s final scene.

Director Steven Soderbergh achieves the 1940s look by filming in black and white with period lenses on the cameras. Shots are composed in the classic style and filmed entirely on studio back lots rather than on location. Visually, the film more than achieves its goal. The problems arise when you get beyond that surface element because aside from the visual aesthetic, the film doesn't adhere to the sensibilities and restrictions of the 1940s. The dialogue is thoroughly modern and so is the direct treatment of sex and sexuality. You never heard Bogart say “fuck” and what happened behind closed bedroom doors was left to the imagination – not so here. This uneasy mixing of the modern and the classic makes the film seem indecisive, like it kind of wants to be a 40s movie, but at the same time it kind of doesn’t.

Furthermore, while the elements of the plot are intriguing, the characters are ultimately underdevelopped and the actors seem out of place in the setting. Clooney and Maguire, in particular, have acting styles that are very modern and don't really mesh with the style of filming. If The Good German had been made without the gimmick, I don't doubt that they could have made their characters work but as it is, the performances just don't seem authentic and come off as pale imitation. The only exception is Blanchett, who is able to effectively evoke Dietrich and rise above the narrowness of her character. Played by Blanchett, Lena fits the setting and is rewarded by getting the only line that really stands out: “An affair has more rules than a marriage.”

The Good German is a difficult film to dislike because for all its faults, at least it's trying to do something and it's taking chances. I admire it for what it wants to do, but find that it falls far short of its objective.

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