I admire Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker. His career as a director has spanned almost two decades and the scope of his work, and the decisions he has made during this period, have shown him to be a director of great vision and versatility.
From independent cinema (Sex, Lies and Videotape) through to Hollywood blockbusters (Ocean’s 11 & 12 – the third installment is released this year) he is the filmmaker’s filmmaker.
Always playing with the medium, never content to just repeat formulas, he is always evolving and trying new things. The Good German is another example of Soderbergh experimenting with the medium of film.
When U.S. war correspondent Capt. Jake Geismer (George Clooney) arrives in post-war Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference – where allied leaders will decide Germany’s fate – he doesn’t recognize much of the Berlin he used to live in. Having once managed a news bureau there, the war has ravaged the city and its inhabitants and as the ‘allies’ (England, America and Russia) begin to secretly vie for control of German resources (specifically rocket scientists) the effects of the war can still be felt.
With black market dealings and shady characters, Jake is soon absorbed into a world of murder and betrayal. Things are not made easier when an old love, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), is brought into the fray.
The Good German does a sparkling job of recreating the noir film style of the 1940s and this is its greatest achievement. Visually, it is inspiring to look at and Soderbergh, who also acted as the film’s cinematographer, recreates on screen a style of filmmaking that we now only see on the Turner Classic Movies channel.
Reading material around the film’s creation and conceptualisation further increases the impact of the visuals. Employing the use of older lenses, shooting almost exclusively on soundstages and a back lot, using archival footage shot just after the Second World War ended and restricting himself to the way the directors of the 40’s shot and directed, you realise how much work actually went into The Good German. It is a beautiful film… in a dark, post-apocalyptic kind of way.
Sadly, pretty as it may be, it lacks personality and a story to match the gorgeous visuals. George Clooney does his George Clooney thing – forever suave and strong on screen – but the events that drive the narrative and his character are dull and boring. The film does bring to the screen topics (visually and thematically) that could never be covered in a true film from the 40’s but these new elements add very little. Once the novelty of The Good German’s style wears off you are left with a product that is of sub par quality when compared to the classics from the era that it is trying so hard to emulate.
Once again Cate Blanchett rises to the acting challenge (she amazes me) and together with Tobey Maguire, provides the film’s only impressionable performances. Maguire is a real rat of a character and his portrayal as an ‘innocent’ motor pool officer is definitely more in line with how his performance should have been as the “bad” Spiderman in Spiderman 3. It was enjoyable watching him step away from the goofy character of Peter Parker.
Is The Good German self-indulgent? Yes, I would say it is. Should you watch it? Well, that depends. If you love dark, seedy film noir and don’t mind sitting through what is – largely – an experiment, then go for it. If you, however, see black and white film as an invitation to boredom then I avoid this one. I acknowledge that equating black and white film with boredom is a stereotype of mass – and often incorrect – proportions but in the case of The Good German, it certainly appears to be true.