Sumptuous, clever and cold, The Good German is Steven Soderbergh’s most ambitious leap back into the movie past he adoringly honored with the light and lovely studio capers Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11. Only now the terrain is dark and the vision bleak. Doffing its cap to Warner Bros. movies of the 1940s, The Good German tucks vintage threads and doomed love into a murder mystery that fans out into a jaundiced commentary on postwar realpolitik. Yet, notwithstanding the studio’s obliging dispatch of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon screeners to put critics in the mood, The Good German owes more to the romantic fatalism of Out of the Past or The Third Man. The style is noir, and the tone, aiming for despair, comes off as ironic and detached as its blitzed characters, thrown together at war’s end in a decimated Berlin that seethes with unsavory vested interests while the Allies methodically parcel out the city at the Potsdam Peace Conference.
Charged with determining which Germans were committed Nazis or peripheral players, and with reconstructing a country demoralized to its core, the victors get busy with their own furtive agendas, sardonically observed by Jake Geismar (George Clooney), a disillusioned war correspondent for The New Republic. When his driver, Corporal Tulley (Tobey Maguire), a fresh-faced Midwestern lad who’s found his métier as a ruthless black marketeer, turns up dead in a ditch in the Russian zone with his pockets stuffed full of German marks, Geismar finds himself in the middle of a far richer story, juiced by the apparent indifference of the Soviets and the Americans. Not to mention Tulley’s hooker girlfriend, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), who was Geismar’s own amour fou during the war years. Instead, everyone seems unusually focused on looking for Lena’s husband, a minor Nazi scientist who she insists is dead. Serial beatings from burly strangers only strengthen Geismar’s resolve to find out what’s going on. And as he doggedly pursues a story in which he’s hardly a dispassionate observer, he discovers that America and Russia, far from being benign liberators, are wallowing in their own corrupt rot as they lay the groundwork for the coming Cold War and an arms race whose fruits would be felt later that same year in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Which makes The Good German at once a tribute to Hollywood war movies and a cunning negation of their self-congratulatory complacency.
Adapted by the literate screenwriter Paul Attanasio from a 2002 novel by Joseph Kanon, The Good German is studiously antiheroic (its villains are every bit as shaded) and brainy as it overlays its manifest theme of German survivor’s guilt with a meditation on tarnished American ideals clearly meant to hold lessons for our current adventures in Iraq. The movie is gorgeously, if slavishly, attentive to period technique, with its swipe-shot segues between scenes, portentous voice-overs and conscientiously stilted dialogue. (Todd Haynes did much the same, but with 10 times the feeling, in Far From Heaven.) Opulently shot by Soderbergh under his pseudonym of Peter Andrews, The Good German comes attractively swathed in silvery black-and-white, but after a while all those rain-soaked cobblestones start to feel like the slightly wanky exercise of an intellectual aesthete. More than a few of Soderbergh’s movies (Kafka; sex, lies and videotape; The Underneath) have foundered on a similar ironic detachment. The singular exception, Out of Sight, floated along on sexual electricity and warm movie love, but The Good German feels passionless, throttled by technique.
At the end, Soderbergh offers us a sentimental treat with a brazen reference to the world’s most beloved (if hardly its best) World War II movie, Casablanca. It doesn’t work — not even when he undercuts the reference — because we’re never convinced of the love story in the first place. Clooney oozes his usual winning appeal, but he’s no Bogart and, to judge by the number of times we’ve seen him coast on mere charm, never will be. Which may be why there’s no charge between him and Blanchett, who, channeling Bacall and Garbo, has little to do other than mope around in doorways with her stunning profile in half-shadow. Lena may be the force field for the movie’s enigmatic layering of the glamorous and the profane — surely a resonant theme for her times and ours. But she attracts no sympathy, and like every other supposedly tormented wretch in this beautiful but soulless picture, she’s a well-dressed stick figure.
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THE GOOD GERMAN | Directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH | Written by PAUL ATTANASIO, based on the novel by JOSEPH KANON | Produced by BEN COSGROVE and GREGORY JACOBS | Released by Warner Bros. | The Grove and AMC Loews Broadway