No. 105 | May 27, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
Watching The Good German made me wonder what Steven Soderbergh did to offend the critics. Did he forget to send them Christmas cards? Did he shoot spitballs at them from the back of the theater? Did he say something nasty about their mothers?
Surely he did something egregious to account for the reaction to his film. The critical response doesn’t seem entirely rational. I hesitate to use the word savage, but after reading another review just now, I’d say it might be the right word for describing the critical war party that was out to get the director when The Good German came out. “Off with his head!” is the approximate gist of many reviews, though as far as I can tell, those exact words didn’t make it into print. (It might have made for an engaging ad campaign.)
I won’t say that The Good German is an unqualified success. I’m not sure it’s even a qualified success. But I’d say at the very least it’s an interesting misfire, and probably even better than that. I’ve only seen the film a couple of times—once when it was first released, once recently—and I may need another viewing before making any firm assessments. Some films are like that. This one seems to be.
Set in 1945, in the aftermath of the Allied victory, The Good German follows Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a war correspondent (for The New Republic, no less), as he returns to Berlin to search for, among other things, his former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Lena’s husband, Emil (Christian Oliver), is a mysterious figure and the “good German” of the title. Having been involved with the German rocket program during the war, Emil is a much-wanted man, sought by the Americans, the Soviets, and the British, all with their own motives. The war was hell, and even for those who made it through, there was a price paid for survival, secrets they’d rather not divulge. The end of the war is no end to the moral compromise, and in Soderbergh’s universe, there is not the usual clear line between the good guys and the bad guys. At least you can’t tell by the uniform.
The Good German is an adaptation of the 2001 novel by Joseph Kanon. The film version departs from the book, and Soderbergh borrows freely from films of the ’40s for story material, and more. One obvious influence is Casablanca, and perhaps this is where Soderbergh gets himself into hot water with the critics. It’s an unwise comparison to draw for any film, but more than that, the borrowing overshadows what’s onscreen, especially the final scene with the plane waiting at the airstrip, and it does get in the way of The Good German telling its own story. The divided-city milieu of The Third Man is also evident, as are echoes from Chinatown, though that isn’t a war film or in black-and-white.
Soderbergh has had an interesting career, hopping between entertainments and experiments. The Good German qualifies as one of his experimental works, though essentially it’s a genre film, an historical spy story/murder mystery, with a recognizable narrative. Soderbergh made a 1940s film in the 21st century. He did mimic the technology of the early era, at least, though the sensibility—not to mention the language and subject matter (the Hays Office would have had a field day with this one)—is more appropriate of our time.
The initial response was hardly receptive, though I do think it’s worth another view. The final word (as always) has yet to be written.