The Theory of Chaos

Friday, December 15, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Good German

Full review behind the jump

The Good German

: Steven Soderbergh
: Paul Attanasio, based on the novel by Joseph Kanon
: Ben Cosgrove, Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh
: Cate Blanchett, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire, Beau Bridges, Leland Orser, Dave Power, Don Pugsley, Christian Oliver, Robin Weigert, Jack Thompson, Tony Curran

When the story plunges us into the sewers in a post-WWII free zone where scoundrels thrive and everything has its price, I thought of
The Third Man, one of the best from Hollywood’s Golden Age. When someone is urged to abandon his inquiries, because the search for truth and justice is fruitless in this place, I thought of Chinatown, a 70’s movie, but one that paid proud tribute to that same age. And when a scene at the end brings us to a lonely airport tarmac where two people approach a plane that only one will board, I chuckled and thought of Casablanca.

The Good German
, the new film directed by prodigy Steven Soderbergh, is in its trappings a love letter to the bleak studio dramas of that postwar period. Presented in crisp black-and-white (Soderbergh, as is his custom, acting as his own cinematographer under an alias), shot entirely in Los Angeles using vintage studio tools and tricks, scored with soaring romance and ache by Thomas Newman, and filled out around its glamorous leads by a roster of sharp supporting players, it may have the frankness of language, violence and sex that we expect in a modern film, but its construction is entirely classical.

That would make it merely an impressive novelty if it didn’t also have a crackerjack story to tell. It asks in many ways an unanswerable question – what is to be done with Germany and the Germans? This is a country that came terrifyingly near to conquering the world and exterminating a whole race of people. The average citizen of such a large nation cannot pretend to have been ignorant of the Nazi ambitions, and yet how much guilt is theirs? How wide must it be spread in the name of justice?

An American attorney (Leland Orser) seems to spend day and night in a long room filled floor-to-ceiling with thick binders, all of them stuffed with dossiers on average citizens who participated in mass murder not with active cruelty, but as if it was a necessary chore. That the whole populace just went mad or fell under some evil spell is too simplistic, and yet the implications of the more complex explanation – that any nation’s people are capable of becoming Nazis, are more troubling than anyone wants to linger on. So what is to be done?

The city of Berlin is in splinters, portions of it “administered” (or looted, as you like) by different Allied Powers, and people do whatever they must to secure German currency that is worth less by the day. Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), once wife to an SS official, now turns tricks with cold acquiescence, and saves her favored attentions for Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), an American soldier whose job in the motor pool lets him go anywhere and get his hands on everything. She hopes he can get her out of Germany, but behind his boyish smile and chipper Yankee attitude he’s an animal who’s finally found his jungle, and is in no hurry to change his arrangement with her. His rosy-cheeked savagery is a thrill from a Maguire, an actor who’s had to largely abandon interesting assignments for Spiderman.

Dignitaries from around the world are converging on the nearby town of Potsdam to draw the new map of Europe. The powers-that-be seem less interested in prosecution and rebuilding in Germany than they do in positioning themselves strategically for the conflict no one will officially admit is inevitable – the US versus the USSR. The people starving and lost right in front of them are already all but forgotten. The Americans and the British seem to be ceding a lot of countries to the influence of the Soviets, so another crucial question is, what are they getting that makes the deal worth it?

That’s the question Captain Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a reporter in uniform, finds himself investigating when a body washes up on the riverbank near the conference. He carries around a private pain, because he remembers how Berlin was before, and he remembers a beautiful woman who helped him find stories; a woman who, in his words, “could get people to do things for her…without them realizing it.

So what is he to do with Lena, who stands before him, the woman he once loved, but now transformed along with her country? And why is everyone suddenly interested in her dead husband?

The movie presents a sort of narrative relay, each portion dominated by a different character’s journey, but it is Blanchett who emerges with the central role in the film, and yet it must also be the most enigmatic, and she does extraordinary work. Berlin has stripped her to her steel core, and yet she can still position herself to inspire the right man at the necessary time. But to what end?

Clooney is dashingly right in monochrome, he knows how to give snap to the witty screenplay by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) without coming across too arch. It was a great day in modern cinema when Clooney and Soderbergh arrived to collaborate on 1998’s Out of Sight, their frequent partnerships since then have provided treasure.

There are times, particularly in a crowd at a parade near the end, where the breadth and depth of hopelessness does achieve an asphyxiating immediacy. The Good German will not enthrall everyone, because it cannot shake that its method is a posture. Its nihilism is dusted off from the archives, its despair is a special effect. But it’s an honest attempt by Soderbergh to match a story with the time and place in Hollywood he thinks would have told it best. I accept his argument, and I like his film.


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