The Reeler


December 15, 2006

The Good German

There's a conceit to offend every movie-lover in Soderbergh's honorable failure

It's the year of alienation for Steven Soderbergh: First Bubble entered theatrical release with its deliberately static, drained-of-action portrait of life at the bottom of the low-skill job chain. Audiences failed to respond at all, and The Good German won't help Soderbergh's financial track record. Seemingly made with the intent of annoying every possible demographic (people who hate old movies, people who love old movies, people who hate modern violence and profanity, people who hate earnest drama, etc.), the film grafts historical Holocaust content onto the (attempted) look and feel of a '40s noir. The results don't work at all, but you can't fault Soderbergh for trying.

The Good German begins not with a time and place, but a look: newsreel footage of post-war Germany in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the pre-widescreen era. The smoking rubble isn't as notable as the rightness of the look: the sprockets are occasionally visible, the black-and-white low on contrast, as a newsreel would be. But something is awry: the typeface of the opening credits looks like nothing so much as an amateur PowerPoint project. It's the first and subtlest indicator that though Soderbergh can nail the look (much of the Berlin footage was jacked from real post-war footage taken by Billy Wilder), he's not here merely to play formalist games, but to offer up some revisionism as well.

July 1945: With war having ended in Germany but still on in Japan, the Big Three (US, UK and USSR) gather at Potsdam to discuss the postwar shape of things to come. Also present is one Jake Geismer (George Clooney), covering the conference for The New Republic. Assigned Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire) as his military driver, Geismer quickly gets in over his head in Berlin's legendarily shady world. Geismer has come primarily to find his prewar love Lena (Cate Blanchett), but is quickly led down the path of atomic conspiracy and murder instead.

Soderbergh chose to shoot with an old-fashioned boom mic, forcing his actors to enunciate differently: he's aiming for '40s noir, but the results hew closer to the awkward early '30s days of sound, when no one knew where to put the mic or how to operate the camera around it, and the actors falter accordingly. Still, it feels suitably aged -- up to the point where Maguire bends Blanchett over a bed, then shortly thereafter beats the shit out of George Clooney. It's only the first incursion of material that would never have been in a classical Hollywood film trying to integrate itself.

The Good German isn't so much a loving tribute to past aesthetics as a treatise on what those films were missing -- the savagery and nihilistic self-preservation of a combat zone vs. the self-satisfied peace-makers who come afterwards to draw new boundaries. With visual nods to The Third Man and Psycho, The Good German ends by recreating Casablanca's finale nearly shot-for-shot, only with Rick and Ilsa discussing culpability for war crimes rather than their affair. The trouble is that it seems unnecessary; rectifying the purposeful omissions of past films so obstinately misses the point of wartime propaganda. Casablanca's propaganda (about getting involved, not being a collaborator, and so on) was subsumed by its romance, which is why it's revived more often than, say, the equally simplistic Operation Burma!. Wearisome, too, are the hackneyed attempts to capture Berlin’s old mystique. "You can never really get out of Berlin," says Blanchett, and the line falls with a thud.

Still, it’s hard not to side with Soderbergh, a man so restlessly experimental that even his ostensibly commercial sell-out work (the Ocean's franchise) pulses with endless, technical intelligence and curiosity. Neither a flat-out disaster like Full Frontal nor what it wishes it were, The Good German is an honorable, if misconceived, failure. No worries: Ocean's Thirteen is already in post-production, sure to put both Soderbergh's financial and artistic credibility back on track.

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