Everybody Comes to Steve's
The Good German / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | December 15, 2006 | Comments ()
Ever since discovering his muse in George Clooney, director Steven Soderbergh has set out to make films of growing complexity and decreasing scope. Their first pairing, Out of Sight, was a slick, blissful deconstruction of a caper movie, and a foreshadowing of the metafictional blowout of Ocean’s Twelve, though the two stopped along the way for Solaris, a soporific meditation on need, lust, and self-delusion. The flip side of those dark concerns was the lighter-than-air Ocean’s Eleven, which was impossible not to enjoy because Clooney seemed to be having too much deadpan fun to ignore. But then came that pesky Ocean’s Twelve, and when Soderbergh wasn’t too busy having Julia Roberts pretend to be Julia Roberts talking to Julia Roberts, he was lovingly framing Clooney at every step, until it became clear that the driving relationship of the series was not the one between Clooney and Roberts but between Clooney and Soderbergh. All this is not to say that Soderbergh’s latest, the painfully self-aware genre experiment The Good German, is a bad film. On the contrary, it’s a beautifully composed, artfully executed melodrama that blends cinematic tricks and tropes from the last 60 years with an often dizzying plot about Nazis, corruption, and black-market intrigue. But as much as it’s a throwback to Hollywood’s golden era, it’s also a love letter to its marquee star. Under the soft-focus gaze of Soderbergh’s black-and-white opus, Clooney is finally transformed into the matinee idol of his generation that Soderbergh always wanted him to be.
From the first frame, Soderbergh risks being overtaken by his own cutesy desire to not just shoot a throwback noir but actually pretend it’s a decades-old film: The credit sequence, even the Warner Bros. logo, has been rendered with a 1940s look, and the opening titles play out over full-frame newsreels of Berlin ruins as Thomas Newman’s score swells and clashes in a broad imitation of Max Steiner (Casablanca). Captain Jake Geismer (Clooney), his name betraying both an easygoing manner and uncomfortable proximity with the enemy, is in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference for the New Republic. While Truman, Stalin, and Churchill assemble to decide the future of Germany, Jake finds himself in a city where the world’s fighting forces exist in an uneasy alliance but where no one actually enforces the law. A river of occupation marks, or “funny money,” is running through the town and fueling the black market, from guns to booze to passage out of Germany. Jake’s assigned driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), is a duplicitous schemer with a fierce temper who enjoys rough sex with his prostitute girlfriend and isn’t above sucker-punching her when he’s angry. That girlfriend, Lena (Cate Blanchett), is also Jake’s former lover, and from here things only get more complicated.
Soderbergh, who also serves as editor and director of photography, bathes every image in harsh light and stark shadow, and the shaft of illumination across Lena’s eyes when she and Jake see each other again is nothing short of gorgeous, in part because it’s been playing in America’s collective subconscious since the days of Rick and Ilsa. Casablanca is, along with Carol Reed’s The Third Man, the strongest influence on Soderbergh’s film, and that feeling of doomed love in a paranoid no-man’s-land has been (mostly) successfully transferred from Michael Curtiz’s film. But while Casablanca had romance in the face of defiant odds, The Good German sticks with the futility of relationships; even as it becomes apparent that Jake is the kind of guy who’d put himself in harm’s way for Lena, it’s never quite clear why. They barely even have a memory of love, and are each functioning in their own best interests. Survival has replaced sacrifice.
Tully goes missing not long after trying to cut a deal with the Russians, hoping to exchange information for cash and a ticket out of town. Jake’s attempts to investigate the matter reveal that — surprise — pretty much everyone he knows is lying about something and playing an angle, and foreign women are not to be trusted. It’s a testament to Clooney’s charisma that Jake, though a bit thickheaded and only blandly likable, remains watchable for the story’s duration. But it’s Blanchett as the archetypal femme fatale who carries the story and provides it with an air of quiet sadness. With her lips and hair black as sin, and her voice lowered and wrapped around a believable German inflection, Blanchett’s Lena is sympathetic without ever being apologetic, and after a while it’s easier to see why Jake’s willing to overlook her deadlier tendencies. There’s something alluring and damaged about her presence, and while Clooney’s performance remains somewhere in the stilted arena that inspired the film, Blanchett’s moving portrayal surpasses it in immediacy.
Based on Joseph Kanon’s novel, the screenplay from Paul Attanasio (“Homicide: Life on the Street,” Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) crackles with an old-school intensity, especially in Jake and Lena’s heated encounters. Soderbergh is still an expert storyteller, but for all the successes in The Good German, it remains more a curious, self-involved endeavor than an actual film. The brief, climactic chase scene is the film’s best moment because it stops aping the classics that informed its aesthetic and instead becomes its own living thing, a hybrid of ’40s-era melodrama and contemporary filmmaking. But ultimately, Soderbergh is too wrapped up in his artificial world and its star to do the film justice. Just like Casablanca, The Good German even features a somewhat tearful goodbye on a rainy runway, but while Rick had Captain Renault and the greatest closing line in film history, Jake just gets the cold German night and a long walk home. It’s as if Soderbergh can’t bear for anyone else to have Clooney, so he keeps his lonely antihero both physically and emotionally removed from the rest of the characters. The Good German is often beautiful, but somehow not much to look at.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.