Like "Bubble," the film with which Steven Soderbergh kicked off the year, "The Good German" is an interesting exercise and a less interesting film. Both "Bubble" and "The Good German" find Soderbergh, never the most distinctive of auteurs, attempting a kind of directorial ventriloquism. "Bubble," with its rawness, its conscious naivete and untrained actors, was a faux first film. "The Good German," which is filmed in gorgeous black and white and offers Cate Blanchett doing her best Dietrich, is an R-rated version of a 40s studio production. It all looks great, but damned if we know why anyone bothered.
George Clooney plays Jake Geismer, a war correspondent who arrives in Berlin in July of 1945 to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference. The city’s a bombed-out mess that’s been carved up into districts, each controlled by one of the Allied forces. The shell-shocked population is still trying to deal with the surrender and with surviving through whatever means are necessary. For Lena (Blanchett), Jake’s former lover, that’s meant prostitution â€” as a friend reminds her, a few months ago she was available for "a can of tuna." Now she’s latched on to Tully (Tobey Maguire), a GI who dabbles in the black market, who promises he can get her out of Berlin, and who happens to have been assigned as Jake’s driver.
Despite the odd "Casablanca" nod, "The Good German"’s real template is "The Third Man," with its post-traumatic stress and its great and terrible lessons on morality. Jake, like Holly Martins, is too arrogant and blustery and blind to be the hero he believes he is â€” he likes to lead with his chin. He arrives on the scene and is immediately undercut by Tully, who grins and golly-gees him while musing in a voice-over about what a patsy Jake is. (Like the city, the film is divided up into territories, with each of the three main characters getting his or her chance to briefly narrate and turn the perspective in their direction.) Maguire resembles, well, Peter Parker, but he talks like a street-corner pimp â€” his coldblooded, opportunistic Tully is an appalling, irresistible character, a horrible little shit who everyone nevertheless describes as good-natured, as if dazed by the power of his boyish grin. We wish he was in more of the movie, but of course, this is a romance of sorts, and it belongs to Blanchett and Clooney.
It’s really too bad that Lena and Jake are so limp as once-lovers â€” Lena, dead-eyed from the things she did to stay alive through the war, has plenty of the secrets, and Jake spends most of the movie trying to pry them out of her so that he can save her from them. But the plot curlicues don’t add up to much once straightened out; one can’t help but reflect at the end that if Lena had just told Jake what she wanted in the beginning, we could have avoided a dozen tortuous chiaroscuro entrances. Either way, the climactic revelations are, even with the freedoms of a modern sensibility, underwhelming, and certainly nothing on Carol Reed‘s Vienna hospital scene.
Given current world events, a drama set in occupied territory could have pungent present-day applications, but "The Good German" avoids easier parallels than a general thought that to the victor go the spoils, even if the victor would rather pretend otherwise as he or she gathers them up. "Forgetting’s a two-way street," Jake is told, and effacing inconvenient history is simpler than atoning for it. Unfortunately, "The Good German" offers no great revelations about history, actual or cinematic. It’s a lovely, hollow novelty.
Opens in limited release December 15th.
+ "The Good German" (Warner Bros.)