Can we still call Steven Soderbergh an experimental filmmaker? He’s about as mainstream as Hollywood allows, fully sanctioned by a major studio to cherry pick an A-list cast—or not—and play around with whatever new distribution platform or old photo equipment happens to strike his fancy. Certainly The Good German qualifies as an experiment: It affirms Soderbergh’s penchant for using such vast resources to push his luck.
Set in the mid-’40s and period-accurate even in presentation, this one apparently intends a control by which to test the hypothesis that George Clooney is a movie star of classical appeal. Is that a cool idea or stupidly obvious? Well, the results are revealing. Coasting on his trademark wised-up charm—which in this context doesn’t seem so old-fashioned after all—Clooney plays Jake Geismer, a war correspondent and former Berlin AP bureau chief. He’s back in town to cover the Potsdam conference and, more urgently, to fan an old flame.
She’s a dark-eyed Cate Blanchett as Lena, a German Jew who survived the war by making, ah, compromises, and by lurking in shadows impersonating Marlene Dietrich. Jake’s driver, improbably inhabited by Tobey Maguire, is one Corporal Tulley, an All-American white-bread stooge with the heart of a treasonable black-market opportunist. Tulley’s a kid who asks for trouble and gets it. For starters, he’s Lena’s lover now, and her pimp.
Meanwhile, mystery shrouds the fate of Lena’s missing husband, a distinguished alumnus of the German V-2 program. Should he happen not to be dead, the occupying Russians and the Americans, already laying groundwork for an arms race, would very much like to pick this fellow’s brain. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s happening here: a proto-noir throwback, one of those postwar parables of embittered romance, set among the still-smoldering ruins and well-plotted with murder and intrigue.
Well, plotted. The Good German was adapted from Joseph Kanon’s 2002 novel by Paul Attanasio, the mature and literate nostalgist who scripted Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco. Alas, Attanasio sometimes also has a deadening touch. (He scripted Disclosure and Sphere, too.) He isn’t showing well here, but is amenable to Soderbergh’s purposes, which appear by turns sentimentalizing and limply subversive. Sentimentalizing because the movie was shot with antique lenses on studio back lots (by Soderbergh himself, under nom-de-photo Peter Andrews), processed in contrasty black-and-white, carefully embroidered with stock footage and opulently scored by Thomas Newman to sound like it was scored by Max Steiner. Subversive because this otherwise puristic contrivance contains, in addition to all its confidently explanatory banter and flicking away of cigarette butts, some real swearing and rough sex.
Too bad it’s all so boring. Even the cast seems to think so; it’s as if they’d only showed up to do their director pal a favor, standing in and keeping him company while he played with his toys. More often than not, what should read as dramatically world-weary comes off as simply inert. Um, maybe because we’ve had 60 years worth of noir disillusionment already?
All Soderbergh seems to have subverted is the quality of Kanon’s novel. To call The Good German less than the sum of its parts isn’t to dishonor the director nor to dismiss those golden-age films he apes. Where Soderbergh shows great technical skill, he lacks emotional purpose. This is simply a dull movie, with characters not worth caring for. Testing Clooney’s timeless charms against anachronism is one thing, but invoking films like Casablanca or Notorious serves only to remind us why we miss actors like Claude Rains, whose deep, tense amusement, so timely then, seems so absent now.
The Good German is an experiment without any urgency or resistance. It came too easily; Soderbergh has slackened with privilege. For one so obviously intimate with The Third Man, he should’ve remembered that movie’s immortal cautionary quip, intoned by Orson Welles’ Harry Lime: “In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”