Those who will hate The Good German will do so not because of its time-appropriate look and technique (more on that in a moment), but because it wants to be a wartime drama stripped of romance — those movie stars may be standing in the rain next to a plane with its engines running, but this isn’t Casablanca. Paul Attanasio’s bruiser of a script (based on Joseph Kanon’s novel) has all the hallmarks of a classy WWII drama. World-weary reporter Jake Geismer (George Clooney) shows up in Berlin two months after the collapse of the Reich to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference, at which the three Allied powers will carve up Europe like so much pie. His driver, Cpl. Tully (Tobey Maguire, sublimely sleazy), is a big fixer in the thriving local black market, and just so happens to be shacking up with statuesque Berliner Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), an ex-girlfriend of Geismer’s who’s so far out of Tully’s league he should need a passport to get within five hundred yards of her. But, it’s Berlin 1945, and a German woman with a shady wartime past is going to sleep with who she has to in order to get out. Geismer can sense a story in all of Brandt’s meaningful silences — that, and the moment when Tully shows up dead in Potsdam with 100,000 marks in his pocket.
Romance, murder, corruption, the looming mood of great historical events, The Good German has all the hallmarks of a well-meaning, by-the-books Hollywood period drama. But director Steven Soderbergh is after something else. There’s that shockingly brutal sex scene between Tully and Brandt, a couple of nasty back-alley fights that leave nobody looking good, and an overall mood of tired cynicism that doesn’t leave much room for heroics. This is Berlin, after all, the heart of evil, in ruins. Hitler has been dead a mere two months, and while the Americans are hunting down Nazis for war crimes, it’s already obvious they will look the other way when it comes to rocket scientists. The grand crusade has already been corrupted, and the Americans and Russians are just squatting in the ruined city fighting over the spoils while their soldiers deal in whores and whiskey.
More unsettling than the script’s cynicism is how it’s presented. Soderbergh — who once worried that the disastrous response to Kafka meant he’d never have a chance to work in black and white again — not only shot The Good German in black and white, but he did so in the style of the time period. The sound is echoey and occasional poor, the acting somewhat stiff in that studio film manner, while the film itself comes close to mimicking the very appearance of work from the time period. Soderbergh went so far as to dig up old 1940s Panavision camera lenses, and even utilized unused footage shot in a still-bombed-out 1948 Berlin by Billy Wilder for A Foreign Affair. It’s a stunning creation, one of the most gorgeously-composed films of recent years, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible: showing that Blanchett actually looks more beautiful in monochrome.
While the visual verisimilitude is a shocking contrast with the script’s modernity (swear words, a lack of staginess), it quickly makes a great deal of sense as we realize this isn’t meant to be a romantic drama, a la Casablanca, it’s a noir thriller in the manner of The Third Man. While the script’s game of ‘who’s the patsy?’ spins about, it also plays with some weightier topics, most importantly the guilt of everyday Germans who may not have had an active role in the war but didn’t necessarily do anything to stop it. In 1945, could there be such things as a good German? As Brandt says at one point, ‘It’s very easy to blame everything on the war.’
Thick with hypocrisy and corruption, the world of The Good German is more that of Graham Greene and a wearied Europe than that of the sun-dazed California dream factory who would continue to mine happy fake fantasies out of the war for decades later. For this it will be hated, though wrongly. Noirs this good don’t come along every day, or even every year.
Good evening, ladies and germs.