Steven Soderbergh's new movie, The Good German, is a supreme exercise in style. Shot in black and white and featuring a sweeping musical score by Thomas Newman, it does for the post-WWII noir what Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven did for 1950s soap opera: it brings the heavy breathing of old school melodrama into the modern age, taking advantage of current freedoms in motion pictures to show the nastiness that always boiled under the surface of these kinds of stories.
George Clooney plays Captain Jacob "Jake" Geismer, a special war correspondent assigned to Berlin as part of the peace process following the Allied victory. When he steps off the plane--an entrance worthy of Cary Grant, the Golden Age cinema actor Clooney is most often compared to--he is greeted by his driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), an eager all-American soldier all too willing to please. Only, Tully has a little more going on than the service of old-fashioned apple pie values. Like everyone in Berlin, he serves two masters: the war effort and himself. On the sly, Tully is a black marketeer and a pimp with a quick temper and violent streak.
As it happens, the woman Tully turns out for tricks was married to someone that both the American and Russian forces would like to get their hands on, making Lena (Cate Blanchett) more than just a convenient source of money and sex for an enterprising profiteer. Adding further to Lena's mystery, she is also Jake's ex-lover from his time as a reporter in pre-war Berlin. They met when he hired her to be his secretary--or, as he calls it, his stringer. Jake used Lena to acquire information. As he explains, she had a knack for getting others to do what she wanted without them realizing it.
Naturally, Jake being assigned Tully as his driver was no mere coincidence. Someone wanted him to find Lena and, in turn, her husband, and Jake becomes dead set on figuring out who and why. On his quest, he will cross the Russians, the Americans, and anyone else who gets in his way, including, in classic film noir style, his own better judgment. Clooney understands what made a good noir hero so compelling. His romantic nature rubs against his single-minded need to be the guy with all the answers, blinding him to the real truth and turning him into a sap, even if it's a noble one. In this context, George can finally put those vintage good looks to use. He's often described as a throwback to old Hollywood, and sure enough, he could have held his own among the greats. Like Bogart or Mitchum, he's also not afraid to stick his chin out so that it can get clocked. As fans of private eye films know, the pest digging around the junk pile usually gets stomped down. I lost track of how many times Jake gets hit from behind when entering a dark room.
The Good German references a host of old movies, the most obvious being Casablanca. The black-and-white cinematography owes a large debt to Fritz Lang and Jules Dassin, as well as some of the French directors like Melville and Clouzot. Soderbergh even uses rear projection in driving scenes to further lend The Good German an air of authenticity, and by splicing old newsreel footage into the narrative, he brings a slight touch of the Italian neorealists. Soderbergh was his own cinematographer, working under the nod de plume Peter Andrews, and he's an absolute wizard with black and white. The old masters could use light and shadow like a painter, manipulating the values to often be even more evocative than Technicolor when it came to wrapping their audiences in moods both anxious and passionate. Soderbergh lives up to their example with zero problem.
The picture is more than homage, however. Soderbergh, adapting Joseph Kanon's novel via a script by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show), is looking for a greater meaning in these old stories than might have been allowed to come out in films of the period. Within the twists and turns of the mystery plot, he's questioning the seats of judgment occupied by post-conflict moralists. More than once it's pointed out that though no German citizen supports the Nazis now, none of these current detractors did much to stop them before, and in the aftermath of this global effort for the greater good, most people are more concerned with getting what they can for themselves than correcting any injustice. One has to wonder what in the current zeitgeist is drawing filmmakers back to this time period. The Good German and De Niro's The Good Shepherd both concern themselves with the escalation of the Cold War, and Clint Eastwood has taken us back to WWII for a somber reexamination in his double-shot Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. For decades we've held on to this belief that those were simpler times, when good and evil were far easier to distinguish. History has usually suggested that it was only in the period that followed that America began to lose its innocence. As Jake says in The Good German, it was easier when you knew who the enemy was because he was shooting at you. Once the guns were put down, everyone could be plotting against you, there's no way to tell. These films are all seeming to suggest that it was never that clearly demarcated, that every smiling face could be shielding darker intentions.
In The Good German, that paranoia is given flesh in Tully. Soderbergh puts Tobey Maguire's wholesome Peter Parker image to good use. At the start of a scene, he's chipper and accommodating, but it only takes a second for him to fly into a rage, cursing and swinging his fists. Unfortunately, Maguire isn't completely up to the challenge, and he ends up being the weak link of the movie. He doesn't have the physical presence to make his attacks on others believable, and though his compact stature is part of what made him an interesting casting choice (as opposed, to say, Brendan Fraser, who played a similar boy scout role in The Quiet American to much better results, but whose size would cause him to tower over Clooney), it can work against the picture. The style is a little hard to ease into at first, and I'd say the blame largely rests on Maguire's shoulders. Had he been more convincing, I wouldn't have even raised an eyebrow. We're meant to believe that he has it over Lena, but Cate Blanchett has ten times the screen presence he has, and so when her character teases Tully for still being a little boy, I found myself nodding in agreement.
The Maguire issue soon passes, however, and The Good German goes into high gear. The story is one that will keep you guessing all the way through, full of double-crosses and surprise revelations, and no less than three shifts in point of view. In this larger context I described, Jake becomes a symbol for an outmoded way of thinking. The reason he keeps getting hit from behind is because he's still holding on to the illusion of the basic good of his fellow man. It's only when he starts walking through doors with the full expectation that a chair might smack into the back of his head--and gradually, blow by blow, he does better from altercation to altercation--that he can start to take command of the situation. It's no coincidence that the only way out of the labyrinth is to face up to the last facts he's avoided facing, to let go of the last person he wanted to let go of. If it were Bogart's sacrifice to make, society would be the better for it, whereas in this less-brave new world, the sacrifice is the notion that there actually is a better world. In a way, Jake has to accept that everything is rotten, and it's the ideological triumph of Sam Spade over Rick Blaine.
Ironically, when it comes to storytelling, it's the other way around: vintage style holds strong in The Good German. Despite the addition of harsh language and more realistic violence--or perhaps because of it--Soderbergh proves that for all the innovation in filmmaking technology, the tried and true basics of a good yarn are still the best tools. Looking past the calculated look of the picture and questions of a larger meaning, what makes The Good German such a pleasure to sit through is that it's a really good story, full of romance and intrigue. That's what makes a film endure, and why I'll see The Good German again. Probably multiple times, too.