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Awesome: 22.58%
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4 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Good German, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Starring Clooney as Bogart, Blanchett as Bergman and Soderbergh as Curtiz"
5 stars

“The Good German” is a film that starts out as an odd technical experiment that self-consciously tries to invoke the look and feel of the hard-hitting Warner Brothers films of the 1940's and ends as a fascinating work that evokes the spirit of those earlier films while still succeeding as a fully developed work in its own right. The result is a film that will delight film buffs, who will love picking through it for the various references and homages, as well as those simply looking for an entertaining and well-told story and it once again demonstrates that Steven Soderbergh is perhaps the most intriguing and predictably unpredictable American filmmaker working today.

Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon, “The Good German” takes place in Berlin on the eve of the 1945 Potsdam peace conference that would see the U.S., England and Russia dividing up the various spoils of war following the surrender of Germany. Among those arriving is Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a former Army captain who is now covering the conference for “The New Republic.” The army assigns baby-faced GI Tully (Tobey Maguire) to serve as his driver/escort but Jake is shocked to discover that he is actually a plugged-in profiteer who can procure anything in an instant and who can violently turn on you in an instant if you cross him. Jake is even more shocked when he tracks Tully down–instead of driving him around, he took off after lifting Jake’s wallet–and finds him canoodling in a bar with Lena (Cate Blanchett), a woman that he knew, as they say, during his days in Berlin and who managed to survive life in wartime Berlin by doing whatever was necessary. (Those who want to experience the film completely fresh are advised to skip the next paragraph as I am forced to reveal a couple of important plot points.)

Just as the conference is about to begin, the body of an American soldier is discovered with pockets stuffed with money. Jake attempts to investigate the crime but he finds that no one–especially the American brass represented by the sleazy Colonel Muller (Beau Bridges)–wants anything to get in the way of the conference or the attempts by the US and Russian reps to ferret away Nazi rocket scientists for their own weapons programs. At the same time, he rekindles his relationship with Lena and learns some shocking information about Lena and her husband, who had been presumed dead and who may be carrying secrets that many would go to great lengths to acquire or keep silent forever. Before long, it becomes apparent to Jake that the post-war world lacks the simple moral clarity of life in wartime (“The good old days when you could tell who the bad guys were by who was shooting at you.”) and he has to determine whether or not he is willing to sell out his own moral code to the highest bidder like everyone else.

As you can probably surmise from the above description, “The Good German” owes a lot to such unassailable classics as “Casablanca” and “The Third Man” on a narrative level. However, the comparisons don’t stop there as Soderbergh has chosen to produce the film using the stylistic techniques of that particular era–instead of sophisticated camera moves, subtle lighting cues and location photography, it has been shot (in beautiful black-and-white by Soderbergh himself under his “Peter Andrews” pseudonym) in a manner that eschews elaborate camera moves and zooms in favor of using simpler focal-length lenses as well as an approximation of the 1.33 Academy ratio used by Hollywood in the days before widescreen photography, lit using the hot incandescent lamps of the day and utilizes cheerfully anachronistic devices such as rear-projection and stock footage to create the illusion that the film was shot in Berlin instead of on a California backlot. The retro attitude also extends to how Soderbergh deploys his actors. Instead of having them perform in the naturalistic style utilized by most screen actors today, Soderbergh has encouraged them to go for the slightly more stylized and theatrical presentation manner that used to be the norm. (To heighten the effect, Soderbergh also went back to recording the sound using large overhead boom mikes that require actors to speak loudly and distinctly in order to be understood.) The only significant point of departure from the filmmaking norms of yesteryear comes with Soderbergh’s approach to violence, sexuality and language. Back then, filmmakers were restricted by the Production Code from going very far in those areas but instead of shackling himself in a similar manner, Soderbergh and screenwriter Paul Attanasio have chosen instead to embrace contemporary freedoms–if you ever wondered what “Casablanca” would have been like if Humphrey Bogart could say “fuck” and Michael Curtiz could show exactly what Rick and Ilsa did after the fade-outs, here is your chance.

Of course, a film that offers viewers nothing but a meticulous recreation of a bygone filmmaking era is likely only to appeal to hardcore film geeks and nobody else and what ultimately makes “The Good German” such a worthwhile film is that it works on levels other than the purely technical. After the first few minutes of getting used to the stylistic conceits, you hardly notice them the rest of the time because Soderbergh has correctly considered the plot and the characters to be just as important, if not more so, than the atmosphere. The story is a crackerjack blend of suspense, romance, humor and politics (well, 1945-era politics) that touches on serious questions of moral complacency while still working as a complex, yet relatively easy-to-follow narrative that takes you back to a time when such films were the norm instead of the exception to the rule. The only one of the stylistic gambits that doesn’t quite pay off is the decision to shoehorn in the foul language and, to a lesser extent, the explicit sex and violence. The first time we hear someone curse, it comes as a jolt because we have become so immersed in the 40's-style conceit that to hear them in such a context gives them a sort of shock value that they haven’t held in a long time. After that, however, Soderbergh and Attanasio don’t really know what to do with the idea and those elements begin to stick out like sore thumbs as the film progresses–personally, I would have like to see them act as though they were strait-jacketed by the constraints of the Production Code and find a way of working around it in the same manner that many filmmakers did at the time.

Although much has been written about the technical achievements of “The Good German,” a good deal of the film’s success is due to the cannily cast actors, whose achievements are no less tricky and no less successful than Soderbergh’s in that they are essentially being asked to completely alter their typical personas and performance approaches for the stylized work seen here. Each of the three leads seem to have all be cast because each one has a distinct persona that they bring to the proceedings and which Soderbergh immediately seeks to subvert. Based on their previous work, we imagine going in that George Clooney will be a charming and cynical rogue who always knows the score no matter what the situation, Cate Blanchett will be a warm, loyal and deeply honorable woman and Tobey Maguire will be the fresh-faced innocent who is about to received a harsh lesson on the realities of life. Instead, the opposite proves to be true in each of those cases–Clooney is remarkably gullible and inefficient, Blanchett is coldly and ruthlessly willing to do whatever she needs to achieve her goals and Maguire’s wet-behind-the-ears look only serves to make his eventual actions even nastier than they might have been. As for the nuts and bolts of their performances, each one takes surprisingly well to the particular constraints of the project–Blanchett so completely immerses herself into the character of Lena that she is virtually unrecognizable during her initial scenes and Clooney seems so at home with this style of acting that someone with no knowledge of who he was could be forgiven for thinking that he really was an actor from the era.

It will be interesting to see how “The Good German” will fare with contemporary audiences–will they embrace it as a well-acted and well-told story or will they be put off by its attempts to revive an era that was over and done long before the majority of the ticket-buying audience was even born. Personally, I think that even if Soderbergh hadn’t decided to recreate the apparatus of 1940's-era studio productions, the film would still hold up because it is a smartly conceived adult entertainment that doesn’t try to dumb things down in order to attract the masses. In other words, it really is just like the kinds of films that they made back in the good old days.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15290&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/22/06 00:45:18
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User Comments

2/19/10 brian If you're looking for a movie with nothing but loathsome characters, you've found it. 1 stars
3/22/09 Dane Youssef Focuses too much on paying homage to the classics and not enough as a stand-alone film. 2 stars
9/24/07 Nicholas Maday I can appreciate what Soderbergh was trying to do, but I hated it. 1 stars
9/08/07 Perry Luntz ` 4 stars
7/23/07 Jefenator A subtly modern, supercharged homage to the classics. I totally bought it. 5 stars
7/01/07 Helen Bradley Very boring slow paced poorly edited 1 stars
4/05/07 William Goss Interesting enough, if only in a technical sense. Maguire irritates, although not for long. 3 stars
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  15-Dec-2006 (R)
  DVD: 22-May-2007



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