Movies: In the Heat of the Noir

The Good German is long on style, short on thought

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For director Steven Soderbergh, The Good German is an exercise in style--retro style. Although his film is set in postwar Berlin, he made it, as the studios once did, on back lots and locations around Los Angeles. He used old-fashioned process photography instead of CGI for his special effects, and though he shot in color, he printed the movie on high-contrast black-and-white stock. He even dug up antique lenses, of the kind directors were obliged to use a half-century ago. By golly, if he shoots into the sun, he gets lens flare. He induced Thomas Newman to write a lush symphonic score in something like the Max Steiner mode and encouraged his actors to perform in the old presentational manner, as if they'd never heard of Stanislavsky, much less Dr. Freud.

Soderbergh doesn't miss a trick, and for a while it's fun for us to share in his fun. But there comes a moment when his Euro-noir film turns into another sort of exercise for the audience: an exercise in boredom. We begin to see that Soderbergh is counting on style to distract us from the familiarity, not to say banality, of the narrative that Paul Attanasio has winnowed out of novelist Joseph Kanon's rather good thriller. What we have here are two standard noir characters. There's the hard-shelled antihero, Jake Geismer (George Clooney), returning to Berlin, where he was a foreign correspondent before the war. His ostensible business is to cover the Potsdam conference. His real interest is in seeing whether the great love of his life, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), has survived and might possibly still love him. It takes him about a nano-second to find her and about the same amount of time to discover that she has been ill used by fate. Soderbergh and Attanasio notice that there is a rough analogy between this pair and Casablanca's Rick and Ilsa--except (and it's a big exception) that Lena, unlike Ilsa, has become hard, manipulative and utterly selfish. Also, she doesn't just need ditsy letters of transit. She's involved in the more cosmic issue of the competition between the Russians and the Americans for the services of German rocket scientists who were complicit in the Holocaust.

It's never a good idea for MacGuffins to grow into huge moral issues, lending false (and queasy) importance to what is essentially an entertainment. Not that the movie doesn't have its great performances. This being Berlin in 1945, there's a whole lot of whoring and black-marketeering going on, at the center of which is Jake's driver, Corporal Tully, who is played, in a striking bit of off-casting, by Tobey Maguire as one of those utterly chilling rogues who think they're charming.

Watching The Good German, you feel the unease, the discontent, of its makers with their basic material. They pile up style points as they flirt with quite sober issues involving loyalty and guilt. The result is a movie that is never quite amusing but never quite mordantly thought provoking either.