January 11, 2007

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The Good German (R)
Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney construct an almost perfect recreation of late 1940s Cold War noir in the lovely, fascinating The Good German.

Fascinating — really, I could watch The Good German over and over for hours, transfixed (I’d imagine) by the lovely black and white, by the perfectly dour period music, the voice-overs full of jaded post-victory sentiments, the dialogue that could have been lifted straight from The Third Man, at least until the occasional f-word or straightforward mention of rape jerks you out of the Turner Classic Movies mindset. Actually, even the profanity and the euphemism-free discussion of violence are well done here. Watch too many old movies and you think that the worst thing ever uttered during World War II was a “geez.” Here horrors are met with words with horrible meanings — it’s perhaps the only modernizing concession made in the movie.

Jake Geismer (Clooney) is a reporter in Berlin for the first time since before the war. His assignment is to cover the negotiations at Potsdam but his real reason for coming back is the hope of seeing his pre-war girlfriend Lena (Cate Blanchett) again. He arrives in town missing his papers and saddled with an Army driver. It turns out the driver, a too-slick-for-his-own-good kid named Tully (Tobey Maguire), has stolen his wallet and his girl — Jake is shocked to see a girl like Lena with a twit like Tully.

Tully is even more of a twit than either Lena or Jake suspects. He sells goods on the black market, mostly to the Russians and, when he learns that Lena’s husband, a believed-to-be-dead mathematician, is being hunted by both Soviets and Americans, he tries to sell Lena on the black market too. Instead, Jake finds Tully floating face down in the river.

What follows is an investigation (by Jake) of Tully, Lena and the morally gray period between the end of the World War (still being fought in the Pacific for most of this movie) and the beginning of the Cold War. Though publicly looking to prosecute Germans for their complicity in Hitler’s many crimes, the Americans are privately looking to scoop up German scientists to add to our own brain trust. Lena and her husband are caught up in this race — as wife of a scientist, Lena is wanted as a way to find her husband. As a prominent German, she has a record that has war prosecutors looking to put her on trial. And now, she’s basically a prostitute, the ultimate symbol of putting the need for survival above concerns about morality.

There’s a lot to think about — both in the personal and the wider political dramas of The Good German. I left the theater hungry for more — what other compromises did our government make after the war? What was the relationship between U.S. and U.S.S.R. officials like as they turned from being allies to enemies?

The Good German is fascinating — fascinating like a mural, fascinating like a detail-rich documentary.

Fascinating, but not all that good.

I would watch The Good German again, would happily sign up to watch it a couple times again and yet I doubt I would find it anything more than the kind of bewilderingly mediocre movie I found it to be the first time I saw it. Tobey Maguire’s Bugsy Malone-like toughness, Cate Blanchett’s dippy version of Marlena Dietrich, George Clooney’s overly smooth Joseph Cotton — these elements lend a bit of fakiness to the movie but they aren’t fatal. They just don’t amount to very much. The movie is like a room decorated to look like a party is going on and filled with people in party-appropriate clothing but ultimately not a party. The Good German has the right set pieces filled with the right actors striking the right poses but nothing in the plot ever switches it on. Where we should see dark Casablanca, we see only a diorama from the period — a museum exhibit, not living history. B-

Rated R for language, violence and some sexual content. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Paul Attanasio from a novel by Joseph Kanon, The Good German is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Brothers in limited release.