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Movie Review: The Good German

The Good German
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Paul Attanasio based on the novel by Joseph Kanon
Warner Bros.

Steven Soderbergh is an absolute enigma.  In his early years working in the indie scene, he became a cult favorite director, with sex, lies, and videotape being his utmost critical darling.  Then in 1998 he began a tremendous winning streak with Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and his biggest hit, the remake of Ocean’s Eleven.  The thing I would always take out of a Soderbergh film is his experiment with editing; he always made a movie more interesting with jump cuts or, as in Out of Sight, the famous scene where George Clooney is having dinner with Jennifer Lopez and it intercuts the conversation with their future sexy romp.

But then, Soderbergh started getting weird.  The very dense Solaris at the very least kept his reputation as experimental intact, even though there was almost no entertainment value, and then more experimentation with Full Frontal, which was just freaking awful.  I enjoyed the giddy sequel to Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, but most hated it.  Even though I liked it, it certainly didn’t show the director at his best.  Then just last year he came out with the simulataneous DVD, internet, and theatrical release of Bubble, a movie I didn’t see, but hopefully everyone now realizes how pointless simultaneous releasing is.

Now Soderbergh looks to get back on track with The Good German, in which the experiment is to make a film with techniques out of the forties, black and white and all.  With screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) adapting the novel from Joseph Kanon, maybe Soderbergh would also have the material he needs for inspiration.  And if a potential mishmash of Casablanca and Chinatown doesn’t excite you, then you are no film fan at all.  Unfortunately, Soderbergh’s newest film comes up short.

Jacob Geismer (Clooney) is a reporter coming to Berlin to write a story on the post-World War II conferences concerning the future of Germany.  Berlin is divided into American, French, British, and Russian zones.  He gets carted around by Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), an American who has been profiting on the black market with his ability to get around.  Lately he’s been trying to find a way to sneak out a woman with a checkered past, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), who has been making ends meet by selling herself.  Tully thinks he’s found his deal in the Russian zone, but he ends up dead.  Geismer once had a relationship with Lena, pre-WWII, and he starts investigating Tully’s murder, one that everyone wants to keep quiet, because the killing of an American soldier on German ground could be another spark for war.

But, strangely, as Geismer discovers, everyone wants to know where Lena Brandt and especially her husband Emil Brandt is.  Emil served as a secretary to an atomic scientist who ran a cruel, secret labor camp in the mountains; Emil is The Good German in which the film refers.  But could there also be more to Lena than just being married to this man?  Is the man even still alive?  And why is it so important that Lena get out of Berlin, and why is everyone looking for her?

Unfortunately, even though the movie has a pretty good message (Not all Germans of the time were necessarily Nazis, but a good portion of them were indifferent to the policies of Hitler and did nothing to stop the regime) that resonates, of course, with our times, I never got wrapped up in the whole mystery of this movie.  It echoes Chinatown a bit, but without hard-boiled dialogue or a carefully structured plot, the mystery of the film isn’t all that compelling.  With the echoes of Casablanca, that sexual tension between Bogart and Bergman is not present between Clooney and Blanchett.  We only know they were lovers because the movie tells us they were; it never convinced me.  Oh, by the way, Tobey Maguire is truly awful in this film: a war profiteer he cannot pull off.

Ultimately, Soderbergh (and screenwriter Attanasio) have made an average film.  With the presence of Clooney and the always-awesome Blanchett (who, quite frankly, is seemingly giving a great performance in an entirely different movie), the movie has been given some credibility and hence, Oscar buzz.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, somehow, this film snuck into the race, but it doesn’t deserve it.


Comment from KW
Time: December 21, 2006, 11:10 am

I really love Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco.

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