One of the biggest complaints I hear about movies is: “They don’t make them like they used to.” Well, sometimes they do. The Good German - now available on DVD from Warner Home Video – is a deliberate attempt to make a movie that looks and feels like one of the vintage Warner Bros. movies of the 1940’s. Director Steven Soderburgh has clearly used Casablanca as a primary reference point, although the influence of many other pictures can be felt as well.
Set in 1945 Berlin, George Clooney stars as Jake Geismer, a war correspondent who is covering the Potsdam Peace Conference. Upon his arrival, he runs into Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), a former lover whom he romanced during a previous job-related stay in the country. Lena is dating Geismer’s assigned driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire). It is perhaps a relationship of convenience, as Lena wants Tully to help her escape Berlin and he wants to use her for his own purposes (which I won’t reveal here). Tully eventually is found dead in Russian-occupied territory, a pile of money strapped to his belt. This arouses Geismer’s interest, and as he starts to investigate, his path goes to American and German officials, as well as back to Lena.
That is a very thumbnail description of the plot. Because the story is, by nature, a mystery, I have chosen to leave out a number of key details. What matters is that Geismer discovers a disturbing plot with some uncomfortable implications. He also must confront his true feelings about his lost love.
Aside from the fact that it has recognizable modern-day stars and language/violence content that clearly marks it as an “R” rated film, The Good German looks just like the kind of picture you’d see on Turner Classic Movies, with Robert Osbourne giving you the history beforehand. It’s been filmed in black-and-white, using the kinds of lighting and cinematography techniques that were common in the 40’s. Every scene transition is achieved through either a fade or a screen wipe. The actors – all of whom are terrific, especially Maguire – perform with the kind of theatricality that the classic stars used. It’s all very convincing, giving The Good German a fascinating retro vibe that fans of old movies will enjoy.
That said, Soderbergh’s movie works better as an experiment than it does as a piece of entertainment. This is probably because The Good German feels like it was made because the director (of whom I’m a major fan) wanted to see if he could do it, rather than having been made because he had a drive to tell this particular story. The closest comparison I have is Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, which also found a top-tier filmmaker slavishly trying to recapture something from the cinematic past. While admirable as an example of directorial innovation and homage, The Good German fails to connect on a basic emotional level. By every technical standard, the film is a triumph; I sat enthralled by how closely it resembled an old movie. Yet at the same time, I never really got caught up in the story. The plotting was confusing, and the characters (especially Lena) seemed woefully underdeveloped. A lot more screen time needed to be spent on establishing who the characters are, how they feel about each other, and why they do what they do. Because these elements are missing, it is nearly impossible to ever lose yourself in the tale.
In the end, watching The Good German is a strange experience. It has many pleasures on a surface level, and very few on a deeper level. Show it to a classroom full of film students/scholars and you might end up enjoying a lively discussion of its style. Show it to a group of friends looking to get caught up in a great movie and you might end up disappointing everyone. Soderbergh remains one of my favorite directors because of his constant desire to challenge himself; even his failures are interesting. With The Good German, he has made a museum piece – a gorgeous thing of immaculate beauty, walled up inside a glass case so that it cannot be touched or felt.
( out of four)
The DVD comes with no special features – not even the theatrical trailer. Sound and picture presentation are outstanding. Of particular interest is that the disc comes only in a “full frame” version. The movies Soderbergh is paying tribute to were made before the era of widescreen, and he has cleverly chosen to replicate their 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The Upside of Anger is rated R for language, violence and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat