A homage to the romantic noir mysteries of the 1940s, a tribute that tries hard but, alas, misses the mark.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

With director Steven Soderbergh you really never know what you're going to get next. I mean, the guy gives us films as diverse as "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" (1989), "Kafka" (1991), "The Limey" (1999), "Erin Brockovich" (2000), "Traffic" (2001), "Oceans Eleven" (2001), "Ocean's Twelve" (2004), Ocean's Thirteen" (2007), "Full Frontal" (2002), and "Solaris" (2002), among others. These movies run the gamut from light to serious, from pretentious to weighty. With "The Good German" (2006), we get something a little in-between: A homage to the romantic noir mysteries of the 1940s, a tribute that tries hard but, alas, misses the mark.

I should mention first that "The Good German" did poorly at the box office, which is perhaps why Warner Bros. did not bother offering any extras on the DVD. While the movie cost something like $32,000,000 to make, it took in little more than $1,250,000. That's disappointing big time. But think about it: The studio put the film into limited distribution and did so at almost the same time that Universal released its big spy drama, "The Good Shepherd," a film with a very similar title. (Prompting my friend Ed Wood to comment that they're already making a sequel to both movies called "The Good German Shepherd.") To make matters worse, in order to simulate the era in which it's set, Soderbergh filmed "The Good German" in an extremely high-contrast black-and-white, which must have turned off a lot of young, modern filmgoers who would rather have curled up in a hole than watch a movie that wasn't in color. Well, they'd really hate this DVD then, because either Soderbergh or the studio decided to go whole hog and not only offer it in its original B&W but in a full-frame ratio as well, rather than in its theatrical ratio of 1.66:1.

Needless to say, the filmmakers meant the 4x3 screen dimensions and the black-and-white photography to simulate the look of an old movie, in this case a story set in Germany just after the close of World War II. It was Soderbergh's intent to recreate a period forties' noir melodrama with romance and intrigue along the lines of "Casablanca" and "The Third Man." And, you know, with stars George Clooney looking as much like a forties' leading man as you can find, Cate Blanchett looking as much like a forties' femme fatale as you can find, and Tobey Maguire looking as much like an all-American boy as you can find, the movie almost pulls it off. The problem is that word "almost."

First, the plot. Clooney plays Capt. Jake Geismer, an army journalist on assignment in postwar Germany, 1945, to cover the Potsdam Conference, the meeting in which Truman, Churchill, and Stalin worked out the details of the peace settlement and drew up a new map of Europe.

Jake's staff driver is a young corporal, Patrick Tully (Maguire), who just happens to be living with a German prostitute, Lena Brandt (Blanchett), for whom Jake is still carrying a torch since before the War. Coincidence? What's more, Tully is more than just a soldier ferrying people around bombed-out Berlin; he's also a black marketeer, making a small fortune in contraband goods. And he's trying to get Lena out of the country before she gets hurt, because both the American government and the Russians want to get their hands on her husband, Emil Brandt, for reasons the movie only suggests at the end. Yes, this Lena gets around: She's got a husband, a current lover, and a former lover all at the same time. Then, after Tully makes a deal with the Russians to get Lena safely away, he winds up face down a river with a bullet in his back.

Jake finds himself involved up to his eyeballs because he still loves Lena himself and will do anything for her. When somebody murders his driver (and Lena's boyfriend), Jake decides to investigate, and thus do we have a story.

Here's the thing: Soderbergh works so much to make the film another "Third Man" or "Casablanca" that he almost turns it into a parody. He duplicates the lighting of an old noir film, he uses stock, vintage footage of the day, he has all the right sets, the right costumes, the right casting, the fog, the shadowy alleys, the even shadier characters, so much so that it begins to play not so much like a tribute to old movies but like a spoof of them. By the end of the movie, when we get to a sewer scene right out of "The Third Man" and a closing scene at an airport at night right out of "Casablanca," I was actually giggling. I was thinking of Peter Falk in "The Cheap Detective." Not the reaction Soderbergh was aiming for, I'm sure. (Unless he really did mean "The Good German" as a satire, in which case I guess it worked perfectly, if you don't mind a perfectly straight, perfectly unfunny satire.)

The other thing Soderbergh does wrong, if, in fact, he was trying seriously to imitate old films, is to include far too much sex and profanity. I can understand his wanting to make a movie that would conform to today's sensibilities, but he can't have it both ways; it's too awkward. The Wife-O-Meter left the room about twenty minutes in, I suspect not only because she found the plot hard to follow but because she found the number of f-words, the infamous "word that won the War," excessive. Remember, in 1945 a "damn" or a "hell" spoken more than once in an entire film would have been extreme. So, Soderbergh wants to remind us of old films and be realistic at the same time. It doesn't work.

What the director does get right, as I say, are the details, right down to Thomas Newman's music, which sounds for all the world like that of an old Warner Bros. studio production of the 1940s. But, again, it's too much of a good thing. Like the rest of the film, Soderbergh gets the look, sound, and feel of the movie right, but not the tone or the script. There is nothing interesting or intriguing in the characters, nothing funny or clever in the dialogue, and nothing romantic or suspenseful in Paul Attanasio's screenplay (based on a book by Joseph Kanon). Those were, after all, among the main ingredients of "Casablanca" and "The Third Man." Missing, you haven't got much more than a picture postcard of a noir film.

Physically, Clooney looks like Cary Grant and Blanchett looks (and sounds) like Marlene Dietrich. But the similarities end there because neither character has any trace of personality that we might care about. Furthermore, Soderbergh tries to use bombed-out Berlin the way Carol Reed used Vienna, but that, too, doesn't work, despite the dark, shattered buildings. Berlin isn't a metaphor as Vienna was in "The Third Man." It's just a beat-up, wiped-out city, and the director makes nothing more of it.

Nor is it ever clear why Jake pursues his investigation of Tully's murder so vigorously, to the point of his getting punched out and roughed up almost constantly. Is it simply because he sees some connection between Tully's death and his ex-girlfriend? Does he feel Lena is in danger herself if he doesn't get to the bottom of the crime? Does he still love her so much, he'd die for her? The plot complications become murky (shades here of "The Big Sleep"), and the director makes none of the character motivations clear. In addition, I couldn't help noticing that Jake's investigations echo those of the main character, Holly Martins, in "The Third Man," a fellow who is also a writer and who also investigates a murder, eventually getting everything wrong. Was this the reason Soderbergh wanted Jake to investigate a murder and get everything wrong? Seems to me the only person who got everything wrong was Soderbergh.

Finally, the direction is oddly flat. Nothing comes to life as it should. Maybe it's because Soderbergh tries so hard to mirror the look and feel of old films that he forgets the need to provide a good, fast-paced story line to go with it. I'm not sure. I only know that a lot of the film does look and feel right, especially the stars, and that I wanted very much for it to succeed. Too bad it was not to be, and the film turns out more of a curiosity than a screen gem.

Here we have another problem. I've already mentioned the film is in 1.37:1 full-frame format, modified from its theatrical ratio of 1.66:1. OK, I see the reasoning behind it. I also see that in a movie theater, audiences would have probably balked at the 1.37:1 dimensions; but the filmmaker and/or the studio probably figured home viewers wouldn't mind. Still, I wish studios would change their disclaimer saying that that these films are "modified to fit your screen." My screen is 16x9, and this smaller ratio certainly does not fit it.

Anyway, let me get to the problem, because it isn't the new screen ratio. It's the black-and-white photography, which in and of itself is not the problem, either. I love B&W photography, for old movies and for newer ones like "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Schindler's List," or "The Man Who Wasn't There." No, the problem (finally) is that Soderbergh tried to integrate a good deal of old vintage B&W footage of postwar, outdoor Berlin into his movie, and a lot of that footage looks substantially overexposed, making contrasts harsh and white levels too extreme, washing out detail. So, Soderbergh uses a lot of bright, glaring light for his own, newly shot outdoor footage, too, and it is not always easy on the eye.

I'm sure the DVD presents the film pretty much as it looked in a theater (but I can't be sure because I never saw the film in a theater; hardly anybody did). However, that does not make the video quality any better. Glaring, harsh contrasts are still glaring harsh contrasts, whether they're intentional or not. Therefore, if you think a reviewer should base a video rating on how good the transfer is, the video rating is probably a "9" or a "10," especially considering that the definition here is pretty good and the black levels are strong. But if you think a reviewer should base a video rating on how good the final product looks to the eye, then you get the rating you see below, a compromise "6."

The sound engineers reproduce the audio in Dolby Digital 5.1, but again Soderbergh tries to have it both ways. He wants a modern sound system but a vintage, 1940s sound. Why not just go all the way and do it in mono? He almost does. The front sound stage is quite narrow, and the rears contain practically nothing. Still, the constricted stereo we do get is quite smooth, warm, natural, and quiet, so that is a plus.

There are none. No extras. I assume the studio figured they'd already lost enough money on the film and decided not to spend any more than they had to on the DVD. What we get are twenty-one scene selections, but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and trailers at start-up only for various other WB products.

Parting Shots:
It's hard to say for just what audience Soderbergh intended this film. If he was aiming for an older audience like me who enjoy old noir mysteries, he missed the mark with too much sex and profanity. If he was aiming for a younger audience, he missed the mark with too many references young people probably wouldn't get and a black-and-white, full-frame picture they probably wouldn't like. And if he was aiming for a more general, middle-of-the-road audience, he missed the mark with a dull plot and even duller characters. It seems to me the only audience Soderbergh actually reached was Soderbergh. He did it because he could.

I was really rooting for this film. The director seemed so intent on recreating the look and feel of a forties' noir, a genre I love, that I wanted "The Good German" to succeed. Unfortunately, he went to such extremes to pay tribute to "The Third Man" and "Casablanca" in particular that by the time this one was over, Soderbergh had impressed me more his by his ability to mimic an old film than by his ability to tell a coherent story. Another lost opportunity, not the first or last in filmdom.


Film Value