In making The Good German, Steven Soderbergh not only has made a tribute to the post-war noir films of the mid to late forties, he has made a movie quite literally the old fashioned way: with old fashioned technology from the period and even in the old style. Technologically this means no zooming lenses, harsher lighting from the incandescent lights and less lighting equipment in general as well as no radio microphones. Stylistically it means less coverage of scenes, abrupt and sometimes hard cuts from scene to scene with few to no soft transitions and more dramatic, theatrical acting from the thespians on the set. The result is an exciting trip back to a bygone era.
George Clooney plays Jacob Geismer, a journalist who has been sent to post-war Berlin. Tobey Maguire plays Patrick Tulley, the driver assigned to Jacob. While Patrick Tulley is getting himself entangled in the black market of the devastated city, Jake discovers that Tulley is ‘with’ a former flame of his, one Lena Brandt, played by Cate Blanchett. When Tulley turns up dead, Jacob feels compelled to investigate and soon grows suspicious of the incredible coincidence that placed him with a driver who was dating a woman he was seeing before the war. Before long, Captain Geismer is thoroughly enmeshed in a web of intrigue wherein it becomes difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad.
For us fans of film noir, The Good German is a delightful experience in the theater. So much of the feel of noir is captured by the film, and the mystery at the heart of the movie is a captivating one. Clooney and Blanchett are spot on, as are the supporting roles, and Soderbergh does an excellent job of giving us a delicious, brooding black and white piece in which suspicion and suspense permeate every frame.
But the film is not without its problems. For starters, its technical aspects seemed too primitive to me. The harsh lighting of the incandescent lights at times seemed too raw and harsh compared to the actual films from the era. Furthermore, there were numerous instances where a brightly sunlit background nearly whited out when a figure entered a darker zone like an alley. This happens with film because, unlike the human eye which can tolerate a far broader range of light before everything either goes black or whites out, film has a smaller range in which it records an image. Thus, when an alley in shade is treated as normal light, the brightly lit street behind it nearly disappears to white on film, whereas the human eye would still see it without a problem. The key is to light the alley with artificial lights so that it is much closer to the background in terms of brightness. On film it will look like there is a far greater difference than there actually is, but Soderbergh seems to have neglected to light the alleys and shaded areas at all. Now it is indisputable that films from a decade ago had less equipment and equipment of lower technology than today, but I do not recall seeing such an extreme in a 1940’s film. In his eagerness to film in a 1940’s style, Soderbergh may have underestimated their ability to capture an image.
These technical aspects are minor problems, however, and are easily forgiven. More troublesome for the picture is the performance of Tobey Maguire. Barely adequate as Peter Parker, this far subtler, more complicated role is too much for him. For anyone who cringes during Star Wars Episode IV every time Luke Skywalker whines like a baby, Maguire’s portrayal of Patrick Tulley is going to set you on edge. And the angrier he gets, the more it seems like his testicles never dropped.
The most damning problems for the film, however, are a somewhat meager characterization of Brandt and Geismer as well as a bit of trouble with the plot structure, and I believe that the latter contributes to, if not outright causes, the former. Initially, the film spends more time with the soon to die Tulley, leaving us with no context for Jake Geismer. It is customary to develop the lead character in the first act and for good reason. North by Northwest, for instance, spends time introducing us to Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill so that, when he finally gets into trouble, we are more engrossed because we feel like we know the man. Included in this early development is his manner of speech and behavior, his relationship with a few characters around him as well as his place in the world, that of an advertising executive. Jacob Geismer, in addition to being a bit bland in terms of personality and weak on motivation, has no context in the world of the story. We know he is a journalist but we never see him settling in nor going about his job nor reacting with coworkers, all of which could have been accomplished in the first minutes instead of following Tulley around. This would later have yielded another advantage: when Geismer is investigating Tulley’s activities we would be left with doubt about the response of some of the other characters, rather than knowing with certainty whether they are lying or not.
Whereas the opportunity to strengthen Geismer was at the beginning, Lena Brandt is mishandled at the end. The movie spends a lot of time building to a promising climax, but the one we get is a let down. There are people looking for Lena Brandt in connection to her deceased husband; there is Lena who wants to leave Berlin but can’t get the papers to get out and must move from hideout to hideout; there is Geismer who wants to help her if only she’ll let him; there are suspicious attacks on Geismer as he investigates and confronts one lie after another; there is the growing realization that the whole sordid affair is bigger than we realize… in a more perfect climax all of these various strands would have come together and been resolved in a single final scene – preferably with Geismer working against the clock to get Lena out of Berlin, and all questions would have been answered and all suspicions either confirmed or allayed. Unfortunately, the various elements fizzle out in disappointing fashion, and when Jacob finally gets Lena to the runway on a rainy night, a location for a finale with which the sublime Casablanca did far more, there is nothing left to do but reveal her obligatory deep dark secret. And as it turns out, the secret is a disappointment for its lack of pertinence to the story. It is simply pulled out of nowhere and neither affects much in the story nor causes us to take another look at what has transpired. It’s just an unrelated skeleton in the closet.
These faults, though numerous, are not enough to bring the project crashing down. The beginning misfires a bit, and the ending is not as grand as could have been hoped for, but the premise is strong and the middle of the story is decidedly compelling. I could sit through it again and just relish the feel of it all. And Clooney and Blanchett are always pleasant to watch. It is not what it could have been, but it was surely decent enough for a recommendation.