Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney are well on the path of establishing a memorable Hollywood partnership akin to John Wayne and John Ford or Humphrey Bogart and John Huston; they have a production company together, have made many films together and have produced still others. “The Good German”, their latest effort, is an interesting experiment. But it is more interesting as an experiment and less interesting as a film.
Captain Jacob Geismer (George Clooney), a journalist, arrives in Germany to cover the Potsdam conference at the end of World War II. Geismer was stationed in Germany before the War began, running the Associate Press bureau, and his return is bittersweet, and the town and people he once loved are in ruins. His driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), a young Army solider, loves living in post-War Germany and works the angles to make some money, providing black market items to people, procuring counterfeit documents, anything to earn money. Geismar soon learns that his old girlfriend, Lena (Cate Blanchett) is still alive and dating Tully. Soon, it becomes apparent that someone is manipulating them to find Lena’s husband, Emil, a scientist, who she claims is dead.
“The Good German” is a difficult film to become involved in. The actors show little emotion as they move through the mechanics of the story. Perhaps this is intended, as a way of showing the effects of the war. In the book, when Geismar finds Lena, she is very sick and he nurses her back to health before they become embroiled in the plot. This is barely alluded to in the film and it changes the dynamic of their relationship. It is difficult to see why he is so interested in Lena. Yes, she is a former lover, but he knows she has been dating Tully (and ‘dating’ is a kind word for their relationship) and has basically has become a prostitute to survive. We never learn why he is so attached to her. Because he doesn’t care for her in the same way in the film, nursing her back to health as he did in the book, he doesn’t “care for her” in the same way. Because this key relationship doesn’t work, the rest of the film becomes a bit tedious.
Soderbergh has always been an innovative filmmaker. In most of his films, he experiments with various aspects of the creative process. In some, he changes color and light to produce heightened effects. In others, he plays with narrative and dialogue to create an interesting, more powerful dynamic between the characters. He has experimented with film noir, sci-fi, drama, comedy, relationship films, heist films, caper films and much more. He is a filmmaker consistently willing to push the envelope, to strengthen his skills and do something different and unusual.
“The Good German”, set in 1945, naturally lends itself to a black and white composition. But rather than take a Woody Allen approach and shoot the film in stunning, crystal clear black and white, Soderbergh decided to move backwards and play with some of the filmmaking techniques from this period. In any conversation about great black and white films, one of the titles that will come up is “Casablanca”. The similarities between the two films are startling; both are set during the war years, involve people affected by the war, and feature doomed relationships. Soderbergh shot “The Good German” on sound stages in Los Angeles, much like Curtiz did with “Casablanca”. But he went a few steps further. Using digital filmmaking techniques in combination with period lenses, lighting and sound techniques he gives the film a remarkably ‘authentic’ look. Scenes are lit dramatically even surrealistically and whites occasionally flare as the camera pans across them. But the director also seems to have adopted some filmmaking techniques common to the period. People move in and out of frame, or approach the camera, their faces filling the screen. He has eschewed long tracking shots for a more dated directorial style.
I have read that Soderbergh directed the actors to perform in a presentational, theatrical stage style. If you look at “Casablanca”, this would be a great way of describing Bogart’s and Bergman’s acting style. Yet, why is it that we remember this as a classic and I can barely remember Clooney and Blanchett’s performances from watching the film yesterday? They are certainly similar, but it just doesn’t work in this new film. The characters seem cold, distant and aloof and we don’t really care for them.
Hopefully, Soderbergh will use some of these techniques on his next film. Now that he has a better handle on them, he should be able to use them to their advantage, possibly creating a ground breaking, memorable work.