Post-war Berlin, July 1945. Two months after Germany's unconditional surrender, the Allies, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, have divided Berlin into four sectors. Capt. Jacob 'Jake' Geismer (George Clooney), a military correspondent, flies into Berlin from London for the upcoming Potsdam Conference between the Allies. The conference is key to dividing Europe into spheres of influence (e.g., apportioning the spoils of war). To get around post-war Berlin, Jake gets Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), a motor pool driver and, as he later learns, a black marketer, to ferry him around Berlin during the conference.
Tully hopes to get his German lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), out of Berlin, but to do that, he has to maneuver around powerful men, including a Russian general, Sikorsky (Ravil Isaynov). Not surprisingly, Jake and Lena share a connection of their own: they were lovers before the war forced Jake to leave Berlin for London. Lena's managed to survive the war, but not without making compromises, some more dubious than others. Both Tully and Jake discover that the Americans and the Russians are on the lookout for Lena's husband, Emil (Christian Oliver), a mathematician who worked as an assistant under a scientist, Franz Bettman (David Willis), who headed up Germany's super-secret missile program.
With its serpentine, convoluted storyline set against a post-war backdrop defined by morally questionable compromises, (potential) femme fatales, war-weary, fatalistic, cynical characters, a resilient, obsessive (anti)hero, double- and triple-crosses, a typically downbeat finale where the flawed hero gets what he needs but not what he wants, The Good German is nothing if not true to film noir. Film noir, however, isn't a genre per se, since it covers everything from crime dramas, heist dramas, and police procedurals, with variations and hybrids making discussion of what's in and what's out of the noir canon almost impossible to decide. Still, “noir” is semi-useful shorthand for The Good German. Even better, call The Good German “Berlin Noir” if you like. That name's already taken, though. Novelist Philip Kerr wrote three novels set before, during, and after World War II that have been collected as Berlin Noir (one or all three should have been adapted for film or television by now).
As homage to The Third Man and other post-war noirs, Soderbergh decided to film The Good German in black-and-white using a 1.66:1 ratio, fixed-focal length lenses, and incandescent lighting that resulted in harsh lighting effects, boom mikes rather than the wireless microphones in use today, and a mix of studio backlots, Los Angeles locations, backscreen projection, and archival footage shot in Berlin in 1945. That's all to the good, but it's really not enough, even when we throw in a typically watchable performance by Cate Blanchett (channeling her inner Marlene Dietrich apparently) and an equally watchable performance from an understated George Clooney. Likewise with the supporting cast, including Tobey Maguire, whose youthful appearance and voice are a perfect match for the egotistical, dangerously naïve Tully and Ravil Isaynov as the duplicitous Russian general, Sikorsky.
The cast's understated, earnest performance is only one indication that Soderbergh took the source material and, by extension, himself, far too seriously. What exactly was Soderbergh trying to accomplish here? Homage? Probably, but feature-length homage might bring in noir fans, but not casual moviegoers. The somber tone and slow-build, slow-burn storyline that loses momentum just when the opposite should be true isn't going to do much for casual moviegoers (who, chances are, will find The Good German overlong at 102 minutes). That's partly the result of Paul Attanasio's dry, by-the-numbers murder mystery storyline partly the result of Soderbergh's surprisingly stiff direction and stagnant pacing that makes The Good German a curiously unsatisfying experience.
Treating Kanon's novel as literary fiction when it should have been treated as pulp was probably the first of many mistakes Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio (The Sum of All Fears[, Sphere, Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show), made here. That and including intrusive voice over narration for Tully, Jake, and Lena (in that order) for no more than one or two scenes each. A livelier pace, an injection of humor, a few unexpected switchbacks, and a tighter storyline where the personal and public events were tied together more closely would have all helped make The Good German far more entertaining and engrossing than it turned out to be (to be fair, that might not have been Soderbergh's intentions).
© Mel Valentin, 22nd December, 2006
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