“You never really get out of Berlin.” It’s the type of romantic line only a femme fatale can deliver in a cinema classic, usually within a dimly lit room while she’s looking away from you. Only in this case, we’re not talking about a 1950’s film, we’re talking about Steven Soderbergh’s latest cinema experiment, “The Good German,” a black-and-white, noirish ode to classic films.
The setting is post-war Berlin, 1945. The Potsdam Conference is about to take place, and military journalist Capt. Jake Geismer (George Clooney) returns to Berlin after years abroad to cover the event. His military driver, Tully (Toby Maguire), is a young rogue who enjoys living up the decadent Berlin experience, and by an odd bit of coincidence, is also engaged in a relationship with Geismer’s ex-mistress Lena (Cate Blanchett). Confused yet? It gets better, especially when Tully turns up dead after trying to set up a deal to get himself and Lena transferred out of Berlin.
“The Good German” is a stylish treat. Shot in black-and-white with fixed lenses (no zooms), using stock footage of Berlin for establishing shots, utilizing a sweeping score and even relying on old school wipes and fade-ins/outs for transitions, the film wraps you in the feel of a classic murder mystery/noir epic. Soderbergh proves himself a good student of classic films with this visual ode, but he mis-steps quite a bit, most notably with the usage of profanity. Just when you’re getting lulled into the beauty of the scenery while chewing on the story, someone strings together a couple “fucks” and you fall right out of the spell. Add to that the fact that modern film stock is so much more advanced than the older stocks, and things suddenly start to look too crisp, especially when spliced with the dirtier stock footage. The difference is enough to be noticeable, and once you make note of it, you’re out of the cloud.
That said, all the set dressing and old school tricks in the world would amount to very little without characters that embrace the experience. Blanchett’s Lena is the picture-perfect vampish femme fatale, playing everyone she comes in contact with, including the audience. Clooney’s Geismer harkens back to Sinatra’s turn in “The Manchurian Candidate” (and he gets slightly more beaten down for his troubles). Not a negative at all, but Maguire’s Tully is played brilliantly as an annoying little pissant of a human that, when he meets his maker, you’re actually not too upset about it. Sure, it’s a plot point that we should care but… he was a prick. And lest he go without proper praise, Leland Orser is amazing as Geismer’s friend and war crime prosection attorney who is trying to find out who should be found accountable for what in an age of atrocities.
Still, all stylish trickery and quality acting aside, the film is not a perfect endeavor. Storywise, one has to wonder how a military journalist, Captain or no, is able to get away with as much authority and rule-dodging as he does. Sure, there was a bit of post-war confusion about but does that mean he should be able to get away with whatever he feels like doing? Eventually, as the stakes rise, you figure someone would’ve locked his a*s up, or worse, dispatched with him completely.
On top of that, little political trickles (hiding rivers underground) are hinted at, but never fully explored. As Geismer states in the film, he misses the old days when he knew who the bad guys were because they were shooting at him. In this film, it’s like everyone is the bad guy. Or no one is. Maybe that’s supposed to be part of the charm of the mystery, but overall it leaves you wondering, when everything ends, why you even cared… if you did.
Overall, while the film is a gorgeous, nostalgic cinema experience, and there’s definitely a multiple of mini-plots to unravel while you work towards the final resolution, the film comes up as a bit of a dud. For all the side-plots and maneuvering, the crisp ending doesn’t resolve much of anything, though it’s set up as if we’re about to walk into a Keyser Soze quality conclusion. Basically, it’s the age old “style over substance” debate, and whereas the film uses the timeframe of post-war Germany and the Potsdam Conference to induce substance by proxy, ultimately the dramas behind the characters are almost non-existant. Soderbergh is to be commended for being able to revive the feelings associated with classic cinema through imagery and casting, but “The Good German” will not find itself as revered in the long run, and is more of a novel, pleasant experiment than anything else.