"They just don't make them like that anymore." So I've heard from many a nostalgic film fan over the years in reference to the Golden Age of Hollywood. What is it about films from the '30s and '40s? Is there something to black-and-white film? Are today's movie stars less classy than those from that era? Where are the new classics of today?
Steven Soderbergh must have been asking himself questions like these—as well as, "Hey, why can't we make them like that anymore?" An aficionado of classic filmmaking, the Oscar-winning director has come up with a film experiment that recreates the look of yesterday's movies, similar to Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow except that this one favors noir mystery/dramas instead of Saturday morning sci-fi adventure.
Based on Joseph Kanon's novel, The Good German echoes the setting of The Third Man and the central relationship of Casablanca. It's 1945 and the European theater of World War II has ended. Captain Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is a war correspondent sent to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference in Berlin, where Allied leaders will meet to decide the fate of Germany, as well as the spoils of war their respective countries will reap.
Geismer is assigned a driver, Corporal Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), a young solider with seemingly wide-eyed all-American innocence. It turns out he's been corrupted by the post-war decadence of Berlin, thriving from his black market dealings with those who need hard-to-get supplies, and especially those who are most desperate to get out of town before the new regime takes over.
One such refugee is Tully's girlfriend Lena (Cate Blanchett), who also happens to be Geismer's former lover from when he was stationed in Berlin years ago. War has changed her, as with everyone, but is there something more that she's concealing from Jake? Days later, an American G.I. is found dead in the river on the Russian side of the city, with 100,000 Deutsch marks on his person. The plot thickens, and Geismer takes it upon himself to solve the murder while uncovering how Lena is involved, and why both the American and Russian governments are so quick to dismiss the case.
The Good German oozes with ambience. Soderbergh shot the film entirely in black and white, relying only on the same technology that was available back in the '40s. Though the actors were filmed on a Los Angeles sound stage, the director edits it together with real news footage of Berlin from that time, and utilizes the same nostalgic transitional "wipes" between scenes that characterized so many classic films (not to mention Star Wars). The dramatic score by Thomas Newman befits the film, and to say that black-and-white film loves Clooney and Blanchett is an understatement. (We already knew it was true of Clooney from last year's Good Night, and Good Luck but Blanchett is in full shadowy Marlene Dietrich mode here.)
Yes, it definitely looks, sounds, and feels like a Hollywood classic. Unfortunately, it turns out that they really can't make them like that anymore. But give Soderbergh and company an A for effort.
The Good German is a compelling mystery as we wait for the next link in the chain, expecting it to lead to a big reveal at the end. But the payoff is unsatisfying—merely an extension of what we already know from the movie's plodding pace.
It's interesting that the screenplay by Paul Attanasio divides the story almost evenly into three segments, each from the point of view of the three main characters. But it also undermines the mystery a little, lest you think it's some Rashomon device used to put the puzzle together. Since we learn plenty from the perspectives of Tully and Lena, it makes following our hero/detective less interesting with no real surprises.
If that's not enough, The Good German also drops the ball by exploiting the seedy content of the film's plot, again proving to some that filmmakers really can't make them like they used to. This is not a wholesome movie like Casablanca or The Third Man; this one is loaded with bad language, adult themes, and some brief graphic sexual content. Maguire in particular seems to be working in overdrive to shed his good boy Peter Parker image—an interestingly darker role that plays against type for him, but he almost tries too hard to be unlikable.
Which is the heart of the film's problem. As impressive as the filmmaking techniques are, audiences won't find enough in the story to care about the characters. There's just not enough screen time for us to care about Tully's character or whatever might happen to him. Lena is a classic femme fatale, but too cold and detached for us to become sympathetic or fearful for her. And Geismer is so flat and one-note a character he could have been played by any actor.
Who killed the soldier? Who is Lena really? Who will the mystery lead to? In the end, who cares? And maybe it doesn't matter to some filmgoers when a movie is this beautiful to look at. I'm an optimist, and though Hollywood's relentless desire to recycle old stories has yielded some terrible remakes, perhaps it's a step in the learning process for them. Maybe it won't be long before Hollywood realizes they can do better by recycling great filmmaking techniques—which includes storytelling that's fully fleshed and original.
The Good German suggests that they can still make 'em like they used to, but also reminds us that there's more to a good movie than good looks.Discussion starters
- What are you willing to sacrifice for your country's way of life in times of trial—your possessions, your life, your family? Since Christians are called to something even higher than government, are you willing to sacrifice more or less for your faith? What are your willing to sacrifice for your faith
- Do you think Germans as a whole were overly persecuted because of the concentration camp atrocities? Or were all Germans at that time "in the know?" Are Germans still persecuted for it today? Is it justified, or is it reverse prejudice for the actions of some
- The Good German places a lot of attention on forgiveness of war crimes. Can the Germans be forgiven for what they were responsible for in World War II? What about the characters in the movie? Should people be saved for what they know (what value they have), or because of who they are
- Some of the film's characters were responsible for desperate acts to survive during the war. Are such acts understandable given the conditions, or is it still sin? If the acts were wrong, then what alternatives did they have?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Good German is rated R for language, violence, and some sexual content. With its decadent setting and a subplot involving prostitution, there's a brief scene of graphic sex, a flashback to a rape, and some shadowed nudity. The violence isn't particularly graphic, but the film loves to use the f-bomb, as well as other choice words that don't seem to represent the period as we remember it from other movies.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/25/07
Jeff Walls (Past the Popcorn) considers Steven Soderbergh's attempt to craft his own Casablanca. And he concludes, "[W]hereas Casablanca succeeded in creating characters that have become etched in our cultural consciousness, The Good German fails to even create characters that stick with us until we're out of the theater. … I appreciated The Good German for what it is, but unlike some of the more successful throwback pictures—Far from Heaven, Down with Love, Raiders of the Lost Ark—it fails to stand on its own."