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GOOD GERMAN, THE (director: Steven Soderbergh; screenwriters: Paul Attanasio/based on the novel by Joseph Kanon; cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh; editor: Steven Soderbergh; music: Thomas Newman; cast: George Clooney (Jake Geismer), Cate Blanchett (Lena Brandt), Tobey Maguire (Tully), Beau Bridges (Colonel Muller), Tony Curran (Danny), Leland Orser (Captain Bernie Teitel), Jack Thompson (Congressman Breimer), Robin Weigert (Hannelore), Ravil Isyanov (General Sikorsky), Dave Power (Lieutenant Schaeffer), Christian Oliver (Emil Brandt), David Willis (Franz Bettmann); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ben Cosgrove/Gregory Jacobs; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2006-USA-in English and German with English subtitles)
“Flat noir homage.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Twelve”/”Bubble”/”Schizopolis”) helms this flat noir homage that might have been a good idea, but the execution is not razor sharp and the plot is muddled and overloaded. To keep it authentic, it’s shot in black-and-white using only vintage equipment available in the 1940s to Hollywood. To keep it modern there’s cursing and lewd sex acts. This film’s most blatant outrage to the past was the last scene, a re-creation of Casablanca’s romantic finale that took place on a dark and misty night by the getaway plane waiting on the runway. It has Cate Blanchett about to board wearing a cloche hat like Ingrid Bergman and George Clooney acting big-hearted like Bogie. The only problem was that both their characters failed to convince us they were deserving of our sympathy like the originals did. Most of the film apes the tension found in The Third Man, but the story is too messy and insipid to have a frisson of its own. It’s based on Joseph Kanon’s best-selling 500-page novel and written by Paul Attanasio.

George Clooney plays the American war correspondent, Jake Geismer, a captain in the army who returns to Berlin in July of 1945, after the war is over and his wartime stint in London, and goes to Berlin to report for the New Republic on the Allied occupation and the Potsdam Conference (whereby Truman, Churchill and Stalin will play God with Germany’s fate). But he’s really interested in finding his former stringer and lover, Lena (Cate Blanchett). He gets assigned an army motor pool driver, Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire), who turns out to be a wise guy opportunist, a sadist, a black marketeer and a low-life pimp. On top of that, he’s involved with pimping for Lena. Tully will soon turn up dead in the river in the Russian sector of the city with a bullet in his belly.

The heart of the tale has to do with the United States and the Soviet Union secretly recruiting German scientists for the cold war to follow, and what Lena has to do with that. With that in mind, we learn Lena’s a Jewess and her hubby, Emil Brandt, is an SS officer who was supposed to be dead but isn’t and was close with a Nazi scientist, Franz Bettmann, and both the Americans and Russians want Emil for reasons unknown. Jake takes a dark road that tells of genocide, postwar rape, and unmentionable atrocities committed by the respective German, American and Soviet players.

We learn that Colonel Muller (Beau Bridges) is in charge of the efforts to bring back the Nazi rocket experts to the United States, no matter their past; Captain Bernie Teitel (Leland Orser) is Jake’s old friend but who is now more interested in prosecuting Nazis than helping him; and General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov) is the devious Russian who has his own schemes to counter the Americans.

Jake acts like many a shamus in a noir film, who despite taking his lumps will persevere. In this case, it means Jake is our guide through this fog of war intrigue until it becomes clear that people do all kinds of hideous things to survive a Holocaust (moral ambiguity being the film’s main point of what might happen during wartime). In the end, the complex web of deceit is de-mystified in the ruins of Berlin, as the future becomes more important than the past for some. But what never becomes clear is that the Clooney character and the fallen character Blanchett plays had a history together that meant so much to him, as the film seems bogged down by style and is too self-conscious of paying homage to another era to be believable in the present.

It’s technically sound but the acting is only suitable and not up to star quality, and the film is wholly grounded in the conventions of film noir and, in the end, this might be an acceptable knockoff film but it’s no Casablanca.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”