Steven Soderbergh has been chasing the ghost of film noir for much of his career. The Good German is the 15th feature he’s directed since his legendary indie success sex, lies, and videotape, back in 1989, and at least the fifth in which he’s experimented with conventions and/or themes of film noir. He’s tried various ways of reconciling the cultural gap between the noir era and the modern world, with varying degrees of success.
His immediate followup to sex, lies, and videotape was 1991’s Kafka, which uneasily combined the Czech writer’s life with his themes. Its stylistic touchstone was German expressionism, noir’s big brother/progenitor, yet the film it most felt like was Carol Reed’s 1949 noir classic The Third Man – a work that The Good German also invokes. His fourth feature, The Underneath, seemed designed explicitly as an effort to transplant noir wholecloth into the modern world. He took yet another 1949 classic – Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross – and replaced the characters with their modern equivalents: The femme fatale became a hot chick in blue jeans; the gangster, a drug-connected rock club owner. The film was only so-so, but not, I think, for reasons related to Soderbergh’s experiment; and it at least captured some of the mood of fatalism and darkness that marks the genre.
Schizopolis could be read as a zany, avant-garde burlesque of many of the genre’s themes, but without any attempt at its style, leaving The Limey (1999) – really a throwback to late-’60s/early-’70s neo-noir – as the most successful of the director’s noir excursions … including, sad to say, The Good German.
George Clooney stars as Jake Geismer, a journalist for The New Republic – a publication that has never before been mentioned in a major Hollywood production, I’m going to guess – who returns to Berlin, his former posting, shortly after V-E Day. He’s supposed to cover the Potsdam Conference, where Truman, Stalin, and Churchill are gathering to carve up the spoils of war in preparation for the new battle – the U.S. and England vs. the Soviet Union – that they all know they’re about to enter. The Allies have already divided the city; the black market thrives; and twin bureaucracies chase after former Nazis: One wants to try them for war crimes; the other wants to whitewash the evil pasts of the best scientists, in order to get the advantage in the upcoming arms race.
Jake is assigned seemingly innocent, apple-cheeked, all-American Tully (Tobey Maguire) as his driver; but we soon learn that Tully is a bully, a crook, and an all-around sleazebag, who is willing to do anything to find a way out of Berlin for his girlfriend, the worldweary prostitute Lena (Cate Blanchett).
At first, Jake is barely on screen; you might well mistake Tully for the protagonist until about a third in, when Jake takes over. (For whatever reason, Soderbergh confuses our locus of identification further by briefly, at various points, having each of these three main characters do voiceover narration.)
It’s not a huge surprise when we learn that Jake and Lena were lovers before the war. What follows is intrigue – both romantic and political.
Soderbergh’s strategy here is basically: Make a dark ’40s romantic thriller 60 years after the fact … with only the tiniest adjustments for the passage of time. Yes, there is some language that wouldn’t have passed the censors back then; and the frequent fights and beatings feel more brutal. But context makes a difference: We live in a world where Peter Andrews’s lovely black-and-white cinematography and Thomas Newman’s vaguely Rosza-like score feel self-conscious and mannered in a way they wouldn’t have back then. When the music swells melodramatically under Lena’s declaration, “You should neffer haff come beck to Berlin,” it’s tough not to giggle. And the final scene’s quotes from Casablanca are so direct that they pull us right out of the film.
In addition to the failure of its basic concept, the movie gets weighted down by too much upfront discussion of guilt and innocence and ambiguous moral decisions: It’s as though Stanley Kramer had been brought in to shoot extra scenes of thematic explication for a Warner Brothers crowdpleaser.
While The Third Man and Casablanca are definite influences, The Good German reminded me more of Billy Wilder than of Reed or Michael Curtiz. I can’t really pinpoint any stylistic similarity; it may simply be that, for me, Wilder – through A Foreign Affair and Witness for the Prosecution – owns cinematic postwar Berlin.
If you can manage to reset your internal clock to the ’40s, you might find enjoyment here; but that’s a pretty big if.
Another major director, Anthony Minghella, arrives in theaters the same day with Breaking and Entering, which coincidentally shares some of The Good German’s thematic and plot elements without even the slightest stylistic affinity.
Jude Law plays workaholic architect Will Francis, who – with his partner (Martin Freeman) – has just moved the business to a new warehouse location in a less-than-great section of London. Will has been with domestic partner Liv (Robin Wright Penn) for a long time; their difficulties raising her daughter, Bea (Poppy Rogers) – a budding gymnast who exercises compulsively and neither sleeps nor eats, but seems likelier borderline autistic than anorexic – have strained the relationship.
When the new office is repeatedly burglarized within a brief period, Will sets up his own stakeout across the street, leading to an uncomfortable friendship with a prostitute (Vera Farmiga), who considers Will’s car a refuge from the bitter British cold. One night, Will sees Miro (Rafi Gavron), a 15-year-old Serb/Muslim immigrant, scaling the warehouse walls and secretly follows him home. What he doesn’t know is that Miro has held on to Will’s personal computer from the first break-in, feeling a fascination or admiration for his life.
To investigate, Will inserts himself into the life of Miro’s mom, Amira (Juliette Binoche), hoping to understand why the boy is a thief (or something), but falling in love with her instead. Things get really complicated.
Minghella began his directorial career in 1991 with Truly Madly Deeply, maybe his best film and certainly his most lovable. Since then he has directed other people’s material – Mr. Wonderful, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain – with varying results. In Breaking and Entering, he is once again working from his own original screenplay, and it seems to bring out the best in him (though Ripley remains my favorite).
The performances here are all quite good, but Binoche steals top honors, bringing a heart-wrenching depth of feeling to her character. And Minghella gets extra credit points for making the first non-action film to incorporate the sport of Parkour (previously seen in District B13 and Casino Royale).
The Good German. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay by Paul Attanasio; based on the novel by Joseph Kanon. With George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, Beau Bridges, and Leland Orser. Opens Fri. at Pacific’s The Grove and AMC Loews Broadway 4.
Breaking and Entering. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella. With Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, Robin Wright Penn, Martin Freeman, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Rafi Gavron, and Poppy Rogers. Opens Fri. at Laemmle’s Monica 4.