Self-aware and painstakingly movie-esque, The Good German comes to the big screen having sacrificed much of the heart of Joseph Kanon’s clever novel. Director Steven Soderbergh, whose 2000 Oscar for Traffic seems more and more of an anomaly every day, has adapted it (with a screenplay by Paul Attanasio, who, with credits like Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco, usually knows much better) as an exercise in film study, a portrait of the artist as a poseur.
Perhaps in an attempt to be irreverent or rebellious, Soderbergh has constructed German as a throwback to the black-and-white epics of Old Hollywood. As a result, German looks ancient, with period camera settings and clean wipe cuts, but it sounds distinctly modern, with language frank and situations dirty enough to merit a late-night schedule on Cinemax. The most recent example of a film made in the mold of an older style is Todd Haynes’ masterful Far From Heaven, but that film used Douglas Sirk’s 1950s as a mirror held up to contemporary society, showing how far our knowledge and morals had come since then, and the distances they had yet to reach. German offers no such reflection.
Attanasio scoops up Kanon’s detail-rich story about the Potsdam conference, but his ladle has holes in it, and only the bigger nuggets remain in the movie (with one critical plot adjustment late in the game). George Clooney is Jake Geismer, an American reporter who returns to Germany following the end of World War II. He has a history there with Lena (Cate Blanchett), a “stringer” with whom he used to cavort.
Unfortunately, for multiple reasons, it turns out that Jake’s driver, the deceptive Patrick Tully (a miscast and under-directed Tobey Maguire) is currently involved with Lena. “Of all the people she had to get involved with, it had to be my driver,” Jake mutters at a bar. It isn’t exactly “Of all the gin joints,” but… actually, it isn’t even close. But aim Soderbergh does for Casablanca, with its mix of romance and mistrust against a decadent geopolitical framework. Legend has it that all collaborators wrote Casablanca as production moved along, and German looks like what would have happened if Casablanca director Michael Curtiz had made every wrong decision along the way.
Chief among them is that Soderbergh opts not to dwell on the story itself, but on the manner of storytelling. He constantly distracts with his emphasis on old-fashioned styles; simply filming in washed-out colors would have lent the film a sense of authenticity. Also, Blanchett, one of the few perfect actors working today, appears instructed not to create a vivid portrayal but instead to play the duplicitous Lena as nothing more than a type, embodying a Marlene Dietrich-style. Why hire one of the greats to play a mannequin? Clooney, as usual, plays stoic and cynical with a sense of remoteness, never giving too much to the character of Jake, even though at times the character feels as though he has everything to lose.
Second-tier characters emerge in German as suspects complicit in the murder of an American soldier, including Bernie Teitel (Leland Orser), an American Jew in search of Nazis; General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov), a mysterious Russian officer; and Colonel Muller (Beau Bridges), an American in control of part of Berlin. Additionally, Lena’s motivations become circumspect as the film progresses. But a lot of the individual scenes lift right out, as one unhinted-at twist or betrayal after another negates what preceded it. Soderbergh appears merely to be amusing himself, paying homage to movies of the past — The Third Man seems to have influenced the director as much as Casablanca — that perhaps inspired him. Still, Doug J. Meerdink’s art direction and Soderbergh’s cinematography (he opted to use pseudonym Peter Andrews) make for pretty filler. It’s just too bad that from a book with such heft comes a film with such little heart.