Good German, The (2006): Soderbergh’s Film Noir, Starring Clooney, Blanchett

Soderberg’s The Good German, a personal, self-reflexive film, was released by Warner on December 9, 2006.

Soderbergh, like many other directors (prominent among them Scorsese and Michael Mann) has been intrigued by the thematics and stylistics of film noir from the very beginning of his career. However, his two efforts in the genre, “Kafka” and “Underneath,” belong to some of his weakest pictures to date.

Paying home to German Expressionism “Kafka” (1991), which is set in Vienna, was a sophomore jinx, a pastiche of a film that lacked distinct identity despite a glorious cast that included Alec Guinness and Jeremy Irons.

“The Underneath,” in 1995 was also disappointing, particularly compared to the source materialthe movie was a loose remake of the classic noir, “Criss Cross.” Both “Kafka” and “Underneath” were artistic and commercial failures.

And now comes Soderbergh’s third effort of film noir, “The Good German,” based on the novel by Joseph Kanon, which was adapted to the screen by writer Paul Attanasio. Like “Kafka,” the movie boasts an all-star cast, headed by George Clooney (a Soderbergh regular and business partner), Cate Blanchette, and Tobey Maguire.

Style Versus Content

Says screenwriter Paul Attanasio: “Soderbergh’s fluent and meticulous direction reintroduces to a modern audience the cinematic pleasures of Warner Bros. films of the Forties. The glamorous style contradicts the acid, even profane content of the story, and implicit in the counterpoint is a question as to how we as Americans see ourselves against how the world sees us–our desire for transcendence (for what is glamour but transcendence) persisting against the tide of the available evidence, our power haunted by our ideals–a question that, in this time of another wartime occupation, has never ssemed more urgent.”

Context

A blend of a mystery, a romance, and a political thriller, “The Good German” is set in Berlin in 1945, at the end of the war, when the devastated city is divided into zones: The American, the Russian. But as the aforementioned quote from writer Attanasio suggests, there is no doubt that Soderbergh, a (post)modernist filmmaker makes clear references to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

The Characters

Loosely based on Kanon’s book, the film unfolds a s a romantic triangle between Jake Geismer (George Clooney), an American war correspondent who has just arrived in Berlin to cover the upcoming Potsdam Peace Conference, where Allied leaders (Truman, Churchill) will meet to determine the fate of the defeated Germany and newly liberated Europe.

Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire), Jake’s driver, exudes small town American charm and naivet. He projects the impression of a country bumpkin, an eager, guileless, good-natured kid from the Midwest. But this being film noir, we know that he has shades of gray, dual personality, and morally ambiguous dealings.

The great Cate Blanchette plays Lena Brandt, the femme fatale, the woman in between; both Jake and Tully fall hard for her. Lena has been irrevocably changed by the war and the hardships of life in the ruined city. But who is Lena A good German trying to escape from Berlin and her past to the West A duplicitous black widow (a prevalent type of female role in noir)

Back to the Past

The trip is not Jake’s first one to Berlin. He had once managed a new bureau there and fell in love with one of his stringers. But that seems a lifetime ago as he takes in the staggering devastation on the jeep ride from the airport to his hotel in the American zone.

This being film noir, we know that Jake will re-encounter his stringer and fall for her hard again. Will Jake tell his love interest, “We’ll always have Berlin,” to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s declaration of love to Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” (“We’ll always have Paris”).

Murder Mystery

In the best tradition of film noir, “The Good German” revolves around a murder mystery, when a body is found in the river in the Russian zone, with a lot of money in his pocket and a bullet in his back. Both the American and the Russian authorities look the other way.

We can also expect revelations about Lena’s mysterious husband Is he alive and hiding Dead and buried

Is Jake film noir’s prototypical character of the fall guy A disillusioned romantic in the mold of Bogart An obsessive self-righteous man We know that Jake will be drawn into the mystery of the murder, and into the bigger mystery of why everyone just wants it to go away. Is it corruption Cover-up related to the black market.

Jake will discoverat a pricethat in the new Berlin, everyone has a secret and chip on his/her shoulder, that everyone is wheeling and dealing. Would the movie have a happy ending a la “Casablanca” Or propagate the cynical mood of Carol Reed’s masterpiece, “The Third Man,” set in Vienna right after the war and revolving around black market and profiteering.

Moral Dilemmas

If sheer survival is the rule of the game, are there any limits to the means used to preserve one’s life. Does the goal justify the methods Whats the role of money, greed, and power in post-WWII life in a city like Berlin Are we in a position to judge

Movies to Watch

In preparation for Soderbergh’s “Good German,” I highly recommend to revisit: “The Maltese Falcon,” “Casablanca,” “Out of the Past,” “The Third Man,” and “The Ugly American.”

And it may not be a bad idea to revisit Soderbergh’s own “Kafka,” which mixes stylized black-and-white cinematography with a major color sequence at the end. Back in 1991, as a follow-up to his stunning debut, “sex, lies and videotape,” the movie was considered a major disappointment. However, seen from today’s perspective, it might have some merits. At the very least, it will illuminate the evolution of Soderbergh as a prime force in the new Hollywood.