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Ambling Plot Mars Brooding Good German

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 5 May
  • COMMENTS
Ambling Plot Mars Brooding <i>Good German</i>

DVD Release Date: May 22, 2007
Theatrical Release Date: December 22, 2006
Rating: R (for language, violence some sensual content)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 108 min.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Actors: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, Beau Bridges, Ravil Issyanov, Christian Oliver, Leland Orser

Take a stroll into the past with director Steven Soderbergh’s latest art flick.  For those who enjoy nostalgia more than great storytelling, The Good German may be just the trick.

WWII has just ended, and Germany is reeling from the carnage.  Jack Geismer (George Clooney), an American journalist sporting a captain’s uniform (courtesy of the U.S. Army), has been sent to cover the victorious Allies’ Potsdam Conference, where Stalin, Churchill and Truman are meeting to divvy up Germany and Poland.  A wartime correspondent, Geismer speaks German and knows the ropes.  But an affair with another writer, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), has left him vulnerable for the past three years.  Covering the conference is just an excuse to look for her.

He finds Lena in the arms of his driver, a young corporal named Tully (Tobey Maguire).  Like many German women, Lena has turned to prostitution to survive, and Tully, who schemes on the black market, is one of her pimps.  When Tully discovers that the Americans are looking for Lena’s husband, an SS scientist (Christian Oliver) who supposedly died during the war, he cuts a deal with a Russian general (Ravil Issykanov).  But the next day, Tully turns up dead.  Geismer sets out to find Lena, who has disappeared, and solve the mystery of Tully’s death.

What’s most striking about this film, which is based on the best-selling novel by author Joseph Kanon, is the frame-by-frame recreation of a 1940s film noir.  It’s dark, it’s brooding and it’s a mystery, although the plot ambles way too much for this critic.  Amazingly, Soderbergh used only equipment that was actually available during the ’40s–everything from the cameras and lenses to the black-and-white film stock and lights.  He throws in a melodramatic score to match, and even his frames are plucked from another era, with close-ups that hark back to Casablanca.  The whole film, in fact, seems to be a huge homage to that epic, especially the end.

It’s extremely authentic, so the audience has the distinct impression that they’re viewing a film from that era.  Soderbergh’s actors all give grandiose, larger than life performances which mimic those of that era, especially Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Clooney and Blanchett seem particularly adept at this.  Clooney holds his cigarettes between his thumb and forefingers, smoking from the side of his mouth, and enunciates every word.  (Cigarettes, by the way, are ubiquitous, and Soderbergh makes great use of their smoke.)  Blanchett is flawless as the fallen woman with too many secrets.  Squint just a bit and she’s pure Marlene Dietrich, with the razor-sharp cheekbones and inky-red lipstick to match.  The only actor who doesn’t live up to the charade is Maguire, who is too young and fresh-faced to play an opportunistic vet like Tully.

During the first third of the film, Tully narrates.  After his death, less than a third of the way through, Geismer picks up the story.  Then the perspective moves to Lena.  The problem with this shifting, triple viewpoint is that it ruins the continuity of the narrative–which is confusing to begin with.  Tully and Lena know things that Geismer doesn’t, but rather than learning information along with Geismer–or enjoying the moment when he is enlightened, from his own point of view–we’re onto it already.  This substantially lessens the impact of any suspense.

Another problem is that the shifting viewpoints also prevent us from getting to know these characters, which means we don’t really care about them.  The most challenging plot point is the main one–Geismer’s enduring love for Lena.  Because she is so [BRIEF SPOILER HERE] thoroughly corrupt, we can’t understand why he loves her.  Geismer is warned, again and again, but he doesn’t believe it.  He didn’t even know that she was married, when they were together.  [END OF SPOILER]  So their relationship seems superficial, and Geismer far too naïve, for much credibility.  I also had a hard time with the fact that Geismer wanted to solve the mystery of Tully’s death.  He had already found Lena (several times), and Tully was an evil character.

The fact remains that although Soderbergh has created a 1940s film from a visual standpoint, he operates from a twenty-first century mindset.  As a result, The Good German has numerous (strong) profanities, some nudity and a very graphic sex scene–things that would never have been allowed back then.  It also lacks the moral certitude so inherent in film noir.  Intrigue is necessary, and it’s not a problem for the leading man to be a patsy.  But he still needs to be ethically and morally bound.  Here, we don’t admire Geismer for loving Lena or solving the mystery.  We just shake our heads in wonder.

It’s an impressive effort, from an artistic point of view, but one which will probably be most appreciated by film students–who can enjoy the technique–and the G.I. generation–who will be thrilled with the walk down memory lane.

AUDIENCE: Adults only

DVD EXTRAS: None

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Characters drink and smoke throughout film, including extensive close-ups of cigarettes, ashes and smoking.  In many scenes, cigarette smoking appears very glamorous.
  • Language/Profanity: Numerous obscenities, many of which are strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Upper female nudity; lengthy, graphic sex scene (without nudity) between a prostitute and client; various discussions about sex and prostitution, including two characters who are prostitutes.
  • Violence: Wartime violence including military officers who spy, shoot  and/or attack one another; brief rape scene after which one character kills another; man punches woman in stomach; various scenes in which main character is viciously beaten.