They don’t make movies like they used to. Except, very rarely, when they make them exactly like they used to. Like The Good German, a meta-period piece that uses vintage Hollywood technique to spin together a noir drama in occupied 1945 Berlin.
The film begins bowing to Casablanca from the very first scene, as reporter Jake Geismer (George Clooney) lands at a military airport. He’s come to cover the realpolitik at the Potsdam Conference. But really he’s come to find Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), the frau he was dizzy with when he ran the AP bureau here before the war.
But the 1945 Berlin is much more corrupt and brutal than French Morocco, much more Polanski’s Chinatown. Geismer is not the only one looking for Lena. American and Russian highbinders want her: her husband, aide to an SS rocket scientist, could be very useful. The war-crimes prosecutor too — those rockets were not built by volunteers. Geismer’s motor-pool driver, Patrick Tully (Toby Maguire), has her as his moll, and he’s getting her out of Berlin on his own terms. The only interest common to everyone is surveying the catastrophe Nazism wrought and wondering aloud if there are any good Germans left.
The visual product belongs in near-entirety to director Steven Soderbergh, working pseudonymously as cinematographer and editor as well. His attention to period production detail drives the film, and has the wonkishly loving touch of a historical re-enactor. The celluloid is black and white. The sound recorded with hand-operated boom mikes — forcing loud, crisp line delivery and stage-style acting. Zoom lenses are out. The pre-1967, morality-mandating Hays Code is back in.
Soderbergh bends the Code for Tully, a two-faced grifter who wears an old-time version of Maguire’s squeaky clean Peter Parker persona when he’s not too busy beating or pimping Lena. Other improvisations find their way in too. The high contrast black and white shots aren’t technically accurate, but do sharpen the impenetrable black spots and blinding clarity of the story. If the experience never manages to be fully immersive, it is magnetically different.
Geismer finds Lena desperate to escape the city and not at all happy to see him. She swears up and down that her husband is long dead. When it comes to how she survived the war she has less to say. Those secrets only get harder to hide when Tully’s body turns up in a river.
The novel styling wanes just as the mystery waxes, and it becomes clear why they stopped making movies like they used to. It’s hard not to giggle at the rear screen projection Soderbergh uses to simulate movement in his interior car shots. In fairness, they aren’t nearly so disruptive as the overwrought period scoring, which looses a cello every time a door opens.
As is requisite for the genre, mysterious strangers are held in safe houses. Double crosses are crossed and crossed back. But in an unfastened way that approximates the elaborately woven twists of noir like an epileptic convulsion approximates a jujitsu routine.
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio, here adapting Joseph Kanon’s novel, has done just the sort of gritty, high RPM writing for TV’s House and Homicide that The Good German needs. And similarly has Soderbergh directed, in Traffic. This mystery is easier. The critics’ consensus holds that Soderbergh is so concerned with re-enacting old technique that the story’s foundations collapse from neglect.
Too true. But The Good German is just as much an experiment in genre as in technique. And unfortunately, the former tanks even harder than the latter.
Noir in its purest form is a reminder of hopelessness. Through the depredations of crime, noir protagonists cling to the possibility of decency, however quietly. In the end, the mystery is always solved. But all the answers bring little. The wheels of desperation, greed and corruption keep turning. The characters see that little bit of hope slip away, but viewers — and this is critical — are still holding on, if just barely.
By contemporary mystery-thriller standards — elaborately depraved serial killers, city-annihilating terrorist attacks — what noir used to animate its darkness with is quaint: a few anonymous stiffs and some missing dough. So Soderbergh’s conjuring a city of surpassing moral gloom is a possibly invigorating turn. In post-War Berlin, the shadows are longer, the secrets are closer held and hope is so much more valuable — all because of that happened during those 12 inhuman years. If the Holocaust is not fertile ground for cultivating hopelessness, nothing is.
But even though the event never comes vividly alive, just the specter of six million gone is far too heavy for the genre piece here made and it steadily pushes the emotional resonance out of its characters’ dilemmas.
And it does come back to Casablanca. As the prop engines heave at the end of that classic, Rick points out to Ilsa — you already know this — “that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” And you don’t believe this is true, or at the least, you don’t want to believe it.
The propellers are chugging at the end of The Good German too, and a reprise of Bogie’s line wouldn’t be out of place. Only now you could easily believe it. You probably have believed it for an hour, since you ceased caring and Lena and Jake. Compared to all the Nazi inhumanity that’s been suggested, the problems of one German, even a good one, don’t amount to a hill of beans. Neither does a movie about them.
– Louis Wittig writes from New York.