Steven Soderbergh’s latest experiment is a clear triumph of style and technique over coherence and content. The Good German is admirable as a successful attempt to revive some lost techniques of filmmaking. Sadly, the less than clear storyline and shallow characters squander what could have been an intriguing exercise in resurrecting some of the great traditions of classic Hollywood. It’s still interesting to look at but after the stylistic novelty wears off, you’ll find yourself checking your watch regularly.
The director made a rigorously conscious effort to emulate the filmmaking technology of 1945. Period lenses were used on modern cameras and only overhead boom microphones were allowed. Lighting was done exclusively with incandescent lights. Zoom lenses and steadicams were also banished from the set. The film was shot in color but converted to black and white, which was pushed to emulate the grainier, high-contrast film stocks of the day (and also match the WWII-era documentary footage used in the film).
Finally, the actors were directed to perform in a less naturalistic, more stylized acting style typical of films of that period. As some of the criticism leveled against the film concerned the acting, I wonder how much was just modern film critics being unaccustomed to the outdated (and somewhat outsized) style of the performances. Personally, the acting is one area where The Good German doesn’t fall down. George Clooney is certainly one modern actor who could have slid effortlessly into Golden Era Hollywood without breaking a sweat. Cate Blanchett also makes for a convincing forties movie heroine.
The film centers around the arrival of a U.S. war correspondent, Jake Geismar (Clooney), to Berlin for the Potsdam Conference immediately following the German surrender in World War II. His driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), is shacked up with a German woman named Lena (Blanchett) who also had also worked for (and slept with) Geismar before the war. Tully is outwardly the all-American corn-red farm boy but this is just a façade that masks a shameless hustler who’ll do anything for a buck, including stealing Geismar’s wallet and pimping out Lena to anyone his drives.
When the U.S. military comes looking for Lena’s supposed dead husband, Tully figures the Russians would be even more interested. However, when Tully turns up dead on the grounds of the Potsdam Conference, Geismar begins probing what he was really doing with Lena, despite warnings from an American general (Beau Bridges) to let things alone.
What really cripples the coherence of the narrative is how the point of view shifts from character to character. The Good German seems to start as Tully’s story. After he’s dead, it shifts to Geismar and then he steps aside and it becomes Lena’s story. It doesn’t help that it’s not clear for a long time why Geismar is so determined to find the killer of a person he detested.
Again, George Clooney brings off the period role easily although Maguire seems less comfortable with the pre-method-acting style of this film. Maybe it’s just too hard to put Spider-Man out of my mind.
Interestingly, the DVD I got from Netflix was the full screen version of the film. Normally, this would be at least an annoyance and even an outrage, depending on the film. However, since 1945 was before the advent of widescreen cinema, the 4:3 aspect ratio was actually more appropriate than the film’s 1.66:1 theatrical format.
The Good German is definitely worth a look to those interested in this period of film, but unfortunately what underlies the pretty surface is underwhelming.