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
Steven Soderbergh, wishing to shoot this film the old Hollywood way, banned the use of sophisticated zoom lenses used by today's cinematographers, returning to the fixed focal-length lenses used in the past. Furthermore, only incandescent lights were used which provided harsh, unnatural lighting. There were also no wireless body microphones, which would allow the faintest whispers to be heard, on set. Sound was recorded the old-fashioned way, with a hand-operated boom mike held above the actors head, which consequently forced the actors to speak in loud, crisp English. See more »
Upon Geismer's first visit to her apartment, Lena lights the stove and begins heating a kettle. Shortly, she announces she is going to bed, leaving the kettle over the stove's flame (as well as a lit candle on the table). See more »
In true noir-ish fashion, much of the intrigue with The Good German is about to whom, and why, the title applies. For a film that has so much devotion to being a 40s recreation or homage, and in spite of another mesmerising performance from the very talented Cate Blanchett, it is also a mystery as to why it is not more of a runaway success.
Employing the grainy black-and-white look of Good Night and Good Luck, only more so, The Good German is a formal exercise in original 40s technique. It uses as its subject 1945 Berlin and the nightmare scenarios of post-war safety. Blanchett plays Lena Brandt, a Jewish German, who attributes her amazing survival to being the ex-wife of an SS man. (She claims he is dead, by the way). Her boyfriend is the violent and abusive Patrick Tully, engagingly played by Tobey Maguire. But haunting her life is also good-guy George Clooney, in the shape of US Captain Jake Geismer. They go back a long way. In more than one sense, to put it delicately. He is disturbed to see her turning tricks as much as he is to see her hanging out with a low-life like Tully.
Lena wants to get out of Berlin, but that is easier said than done. Our film is awash with intrigues as everyone individually tries to help her, but everyone also schemes against each other. Who is a war criminal and who is just an ordinary German? Understandably, no-one wants to be caught with their pants down, and everybody is in Lena's.
Lena herself plays her cards very close to her chest. She only reveals her hand towards the end. As she takes over centre-stage, her story provides some tension and emotional ballast to a plot that is otherwise a bit lifeless. Disappointingly, the usually capable Clooney is the weak link in the acting. His usually charismatically chirpy, cheeky style seems anachronistic and makes him look both typecast and mis-cast. The part could have been written for Humphrey Bogart. There and many thematic and visual references to Casablanca. But Clooney's lack of gravitas highlights the film's stylistic weakness. The Good German is ponderous without conveying a seriousness of the subject matter and so ends up just seeming self-important.
Beautiful noir-ish chiaroscuro lighting is a delicious hearkening back to more substantial classics of old. But, with the exception of Lena, the characters lack the moral ambiguity that was so characteristic of such films. Jake mentions, "the good old days - when you could tell who was the bad guy by who was shooting at you." But, although the line could have come out of the mouth of Bogart, it refers to a period and style of film-making that is a world away from what this tries to be.
Lena (Cate Blanchett) is a mystery, and the film is worth seeing for this magnificent, towering performance, that is also a study in emotional complexity. Long-suffering, she oozes oceans of repressed emotion in a way to make Ingrid Bergman proud. Although more complex than female protagonists of 40s movies, she is still the most successful part of the whole homage.
The story does have a little more subtlety than one might have expected, but I find it hard to imagine vast audiences wading through it joyfully until the pace eventually picks up enough to warrant serious interest. It's good to see the usually very capable Steven Soderbergh directing serious cinema again (instead of his Ocean's Eleven romps) but this over-ambitious project doesn't quite cut it. See it if you're a fan of Blanchett, or if you enjoy seeing Clooney getting beaten up.
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