Posted Tuesday, Jan. 9, 8:08 p.m.
“The Good German,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, is a noir thriller set in post-WWII Berlin during the Potsdam conference. It follows an American journalist named Jake Geismer (George Clooney) who gets drawn in to a murder investigation involving his former mistress Lena (Cate Blanchett) and driver Tully (Tobey Maguire). In unraveling the mystery, Jake uncovers a conspiracy involving the Soviet and American occupation forces, and the problem everyone has of coming to terms with crimes committed during the war.
Stylistically, “The Good German” is captured in the manner of noir thrillers of the 1940s – hence, it is filmed in black and white and shot almost entirely on backlots. The characters follow a familiar noir mold, with Lena as the manipulative and strong femme fatale, and Geismer the enthusiastic idealist in the mold of Scottie (James Stewart) from “Vertigo.”
As such, this film can be evaluated on two different levels: first, as a love letter to a style of film-making – an introduction that proves to be more educational than anything else; second, as a thrilling and an interesting drama of post-war corruption and murder.
On the first level, as an experiment of 1940s noir technique, “The Good German” succeeds, often due to the presence of Blanchett’s Lena. Blanchett projects a strong sense of personality and character, and this adds to the feeling that she cannot be completely trusted, that she is strong enough to manipulate others. Stylistically, the film tirelessly sticks to conventions we would expect to see in a 40s noir, from frequent voiceovers and a weaving plot to the melodramatic score blaring in the transitions between scenes. Even the driving scenes are backed by rear-screen projection.
On the second level, “The Good German” sets itself for a gripping tale of corruption and deception by addressing the problem of judging Berlin and the German people for sins committed during the war. Corruption is everywhere – think “Chinatown” in post-war Berlin.
Unfortunately, in its desire to stick to stylistic conventions, “The Good German” forgets to provide us with an original and thrilling movie. The plot drags at times, and the story itself, despite Blanchett’s best efforts, is rarely gripping, clever, or spectacular. Clooney and Blanchett play reunited lovers in the ilk of Bogart and Bergman in “Casablanca”, but the chemistry is never apparent. Rather, Blanchett comes off as a manipulative pragmatist, and Clooney’s affections for her never seem well-founded, or even that sincere.
This is amplified by Clooney’s inability to really establish himself within the style of the film. For example, we see him almost constantly with cigarette in hand, but rarely if ever taking a drag from it. He is unable to convey the depth required to show the earnest idealism of his character’s actions, and the story loses some of its grip and tension as a result.
Further problems arise when Soderbergh quite obviously attempts to frame several scenes in the mold of “Casablanca” and “Chinatown.” Lack of tension and spotty pacing prevent him from capturing the timelessness and emotion desired, and the result is often hokey.
Overall, then, “The Good German” comes off as a good introduction for modern film aficionados to the style of a noir thriller set in the 1940s. As an intriguing tale in its own right, however, it leaves much to be desired because of the fairly sedate and unremarkable plot (despite the setting) and the lack of tension between the main characters. This is no “Casablanca.”