The Good German
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring George Clooney, Tobey Maguire, and Cate Blanchett. Rated 14A.
There is no truth to the rumour that Disney intended to roll this and The Good Shepherd into a single production, to be called The Good German Shepherd. Even so, there is definitely a thrown-together quality to the latest effort by Steven Soderbergh, who appears to respect film noir more than he understands it.
Riffing off cynical postwar efforts mostly shot in harsh black and white, the not-so-good German is set in rubble-strewn Berlin during the Potsdam Conference, back when the borders between Allied occupation zones were porous, if still dangerous, things to cross. George Clooney looks ideal as Jacob “Jake” Geismer, a war correspondent whose boxy, well-cut uniform in no way protects him from getting the shit kicked out of him at almost every turn. Straight off the plane, he gets robbed by his assigned driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), a black marketeer playing all sides to his own advantage—until, early in the story, he can’t.
As it happens, Tully’s local consort, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), was Jake’s main squeeze before the war and the biggest reason for his return. Married to a junior SS officer privy to secrets that both the Americans and Russians are after and now a jaded hooker with a bicycle and a thousand-yard stare, she puts our hero in harm’s way wherever he goes.
Aside from this obsession with his stylish ex (like Clooney, Blanchett was born for ’40s clothing), there isn’t much to distinguish Jake as a personality. Certainly, he doesn’t get much work done in Berlin, busy as he is dodging, or seeking help from, various U.S. officers (led by a menacing Beau Bridges and a more straightforward Leland Orser) and an ambiguously drawn Russian general (excellent Ravil Isaynov).
Effective supporting players include Jack Thompson as a right-wing congressman eager to forgive the Nazis because they’re not communists, and Robin Weigert (Deadwood’s Calamity Jane) as Lena’s tough partner in nightclub whoopee. And despite somewhat washed-out cinematography, also handled by Soderbergh, the movie is consistently interesting to look at, especially when it draws on contemporary newsreel footage of the bombed-out city.
The story itself, though, is unaccountably dull. The script, by Paul Attanasio from a novel by Joseph Kanon, genuflects noisily toward noir. But the dialogue doesn’t crackle and there’s little urgency to the plot, leaving the viewer not much to do but admire the filmmakers’ taste in vintage cinema. (If they had watched Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, they might have at least figured out how to make this funny.)
Even the actors don’t seem all that engaged. And by the time Blanchett shows up in Ingrid Bergman’s hat from Casablanca, the whole thing smacks more of self-congratulation than depth. Hell, if we wanted that, we could have gone with Disney.