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The Good German C
Year Released: 2006
The Good German takes its cue from Todd Haynes' gloriously revisionist Far from Heaven -- adopting the techniques and subject matter of Hollywood's Golden Era without the accompanying censorship or social taboos. Haynes injected homosexuality and racial persecution into a Douglas Sirk melodrama, while Good German director Steven Soderbergh brings postmodern darkness to Casablanca-style postwar intrigue. It certainly makes for unique viewing, but in this case, the gimmickry overcomes the substance too often, leaving us with an interesting stunt rather than a successful film.
Soderbergh certainly wears his influences on his sleeve, evoking not just Casablanca, but similar postwar classics such as The Third Man and Open City. He employs camera angles and shot composition unseen in decades, and meshes obvious stock footage with equally obvious studio work in an attempt to recreate the feeling of films gone by. Soderbergh's own cinematography (under the surname Peter Andrews) brings the lush black-and-white of noir to the film's bombed-out Berlin, and composer Thomas Newman takes a page from his father Alfred's book with a throwback piece of orchestral grandeur that bears little resemblance to his own quirky modernism. The cast, for their part, throw themselves wholeheartedly into the film's revisionist ethos, tweaking their own images with deconstructed (and at times deliberately stilted) performances. George Clooney transforms his would-be romantic lead into a feckless chump, Tobey Maguire hides his vicious little scumbag behind a wholesome facade, and Cate Blanchett finds a remarkable blend of darkness and light in her riff on the classic femme fatale.
Their drama plays out shortly after the Nazi surrender, as the victors scramble for the spoils and the surviving Germans try to stay alive. It's a time of hard choices and moral compromise, where the specter of war has been banished, leaving a harvest of bitter fruit behind. Here, Clooney's journalist Jake Geismer arrives in search of his prewar mistress Lena Brandt (Blanchett), wearing a military uniform to move easily amongst the city's new occupiers. His driver is a nasty piece of work named Tully (Maguire) who runs an intricate web of schemes beneath a line of boy-next-door hogwash, and who may have a bead on where Geismer's paramour is hiding. But there's more at stake than a lovers' reunion. Brandt's husband was a big wheel in the Nazi regime, and while he hasn't been seen in quite some time, the details of his work could tip the scales of power in the postwar world. While the victorious Allies meet in Potsdam to carve up Europe, Geismer enters into a dangerous game to save his lover, unaware of just how much he's putting at risk.
As an exercise in nostalgia, it's unparalleled. Though unduly mannered at times, the cast possesses the sort of Hollywood glamour too rarely seen these days, which makes it all the more pugnacious to watch them quietly undermine that image. Soderbergh relishes in the convoluted plot and expository dialogue, playing it out the way Hitchcock or Wilder would have done back in the day. One look at the poster -- a direct emulation of Casablanca's -- tells you where this film's heart lies, and the filmmakers involved have the passion required to evoke that era, warts and all. Like Haynes before them, they take a special glee in applying modern sensibilities to its conventions. What would those Golden Era films look like if you could say "fuck" onscreen? How would they deal with overt sexuality, or the implication that the U.S. government is not the paragon of virtue it claims to be? Blanchett's character acts as the central fulcrum: a former aristocrat with nebulous ties to the previous regime, now selling her body in order to stay alive. How compromised is she? Is one morally accountable for decisions made for survival's stake, and if so, where does one draw that line? Through her, Soderbergh explores the murky waters that his predecessors couldn't because of censorship, cultural mores, and the simple fact that at the time, everyone was so relieved at victory that they didn't want to ask too many questions about the cost. Blanchett shoulders the burden admirably, helped by a nice supporting turn from Robin Weigert (my favorite foul-mouthed cowgirl of all time) as a fellow prostitute, and from Clooney's arch dismantling of his dashing crusader roles.
And yet despite their best efforts, the gag ultimately wears thin. Having established the premise, The Good German has no choice but to play it out in an eminently predictable fashion. We grasp the idea within the first 10 minutes, enjoy it for another 40 or so... and then the well runs dry. For the remainder, we must make do with deciphering the deliberately Byzantine plot and trying to connect in some real way with the characters. By its very nature, The Good German makes that impossible, viewing the figures onscreen as constructs to be poked, prodded, and undermined. And while it wears its intentions openly, it ends up minimizing the subtext of its predecessors, which slipped problematic or troubling themes beneath their feel-good surfaces. The Third Man still has it beat for pitch-black cynicism, and without more to draw us in, it's never going to top the pure entertainment value of those older movies. Soderbergh, as always, is a bold and fearless filmmaker, willing to take risks of every kind in an effort to expand the boundaries of the medium. I don't fault his intentions here, and confess that the results make for a fascinating curio. But not every experiment can succeed, and for all its ambitions, The Good German never shakes the notion that it's a one-trick pony at heart. The film geek in me is glad to have seen it; the rest just kept wondering if they were going to show me anything else.
Review published 12.16.2006.
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