Berlin, July, 1945. Journalist Jake Geismer arrives to cover the Potsdam conference, issued a captain's uniform for easier passage. He also wants to find Lena, an old flame who's now a prostitute desperate to get out of Berlin. He discovers that the driver he's assigned, a cheerful down-home sadist named Corporal Tully, is Lena's keeper. When the body of a murdered man washes up in Potsdam (within the Russian sector), Jake may be the only person who wants to solve the crime: U.S. personnel are busy finding Nazis to bring to trial, the Russians and the Americans are looking for German rocket scientists, and Lena has her own secrets. Written by
The Good German is an ironic comment on Good Americans
This movie is an homage not only to the vocabulary of film noir , but also to its social and political genesis. Film Noir developed after World War II and was an outgrowth of both the cynicism that was generated by WW II because it turned out to need another war to be the war to end all wars.... and because of the enormous evil that World War II revealed in contradistinction to the sunny idealism of the American Project.
Film Noir of the 40's and 50's was a reaction to WW II, but those films themselves were always crime stories about naive men dragged into terrible circumstances through the lure of seductive, dangerous women. But they were never about the war itself or anything to do with the war itself. WWII movies were patriotic paeans to heroism like 30 Seconds over Tokyo or the common man like A Walk in the Sun or home front heroism like Mrs. Mininver. Indeed only Casablanca itself, as exemplified early on by Rick's character was suffused with some of the cynicism that we see in film noir, but the reason Casablance is beloved is because the cynicism melts away in the the understanding that there is something greater than one's own preservation.
What is wonderful about the Good German is that it is a Film Noir film about the War itself and also about war in general...then and now. The film and its concerns are not dated or meaningless, but very much of the moment.
The film also pays visual homage to other movies of the era, from the warm hearted cynicism of Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair with Jean Arthur as the parochial Congressperson (like in this film) and Marlene Dietrich as the dangerous vamp with a dark past. Roberto Rossellini's Germany:Year Zero, shot in postwar Berlin, shows how fear, deprivation and terror destroy the soul as ell as the body.
The Congressman is not just a boob but a participant in the propagation of evil and the Good American General of Beau Bridges is anything but good. Indeed, as we know now Americans protected Nazis who could help us in terms of confronting the next evil--Communism and Russia. And the story they tell about the V-2 rocket is true. The Germans and Werner van Braun used up the lives and caused the deaths of Jewish and other POW's slave labor to create and launch them and we, in terms of the American occupation and the incipient CIA aka the OSS, helped mass murderers to safety.
Even the lawyer Teitel, the man researching the Nuremberg Trials, whose sole purpose is to pursue Justice, can be compromised. Tobey Maguire was chosen to play the vicious, venal Tully because to most American audiences he, as Peter Parker, typifies the best of America. He is meant to be jarring to the audience. Lena, indeed is the vamp, but unlike old film noir like Out of the Past, she doesn't lead Jake on, Jake misleads himself about her. She is just a desperate woman struggling to survive.
Some would say this is a movie about moral ambiguities, but I think it's not that ambiguous. The filmmakers have cast judgment on some of our post war behavior and found it wanting.
The only romanticism in this movie is in the style, a valentine to the look of old movies; there is no romanticism in its view of America at war.
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