Soderbergh's The Good German: A Fascinating WWII Black and White
by Alex Billington
December 23, 2006
The Good German is the latest film from the incredible filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. The ambitious Soderbergh, who earlier this year released Bubble in theaters, on television, and on DVD within a week of each other, has shot a film in the simple style of the 1940s, mixing archival footage from the decade with black-and-white original material, eschewing such modern conveniences as zoom lenses, wireless microphones, and contemporary lighting. Although I may have a bit more appreciation and respect for Soderbergh than a number of others out there, I did love The Good German, even with its acting and plot flaws, and believe it deserves more respect and recognition than it has so far received.
In post-World War II Berlin, a young military driver (Tobey Maguire) escorts U.S. Army war correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney) to and from the Potsdam Conference but soon ends up mysteriously dead. Geismer is drawn into the murder investigation both officially and unofficially, as he soon discovers his German ex-lover Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) is also involved, as are some devious Russians and the controlling American government. The intricate plot becomes a lengthy noir murder mystery that travels to all ends of Berlin on all fronts.
Director and writer Soderbergh has flawlessly recreated the filmmaking style and look of the 1940s. Were it not for the contemporary cast, it would be hard to tell this from a genuine noir film with its gorgeous cinematography and camerawork that help define the tones of black and white. At first I'm reminded of Sin City, but The Good German has such a grungy and truly "old fashioned" style that it eventually smoothes itself out into the great noir black and whites of past. The Good German will let you relive your noir fantasies, at least if you're willing to ignore some confusing plot issues and deliberately overwrought acting.
The film is rather lengthy, and gets far into the depths of the story, eventually becoming confusing - even by mystery standards. I was constantly fascinated and enthralled by the film despite its convoluted plot; I was intently focused more on the story and less on how it looked. To anyone who sees a lot of high-budget modern films, The Good German is an amazing statement of how Hollywood ideals have changed over the last 60 years. It shows that there really is no need for any grand CGI or anything else to create a great movie. The film has timeless respect and appreciation captured incredibly, even though many will find it a snore. It has a theme that relies exclusively on the story, but not visually, not even with its dialogue, but rather with the sets and the action more than anything else. To some, this is a bore compared to explosive action of the Hollywood features today, to others, this is a welcome reference back to the classics that explores simply the story at hand.
Some of the biggest distractions in The Good German were the performances from the principal actors. Soderbergh chose to use a more crisp, clipped form of delivery seemingly more suitable for sound media that would rapidly degrade. Tobey Maguire in particular gave a performance that would baffle anyone used to his aw-shucks demeanor as Peter Parker. George Clooney, known for taking a wider range of roles, seemed more natural in his role as a war correspondent. Cate Blanchett gives the only convincing performance of the major names: she becomes a completely different person than you've known, stealing scenes from Clooney every time.
I'm a very big fan of Steven Soderbergh and his experiments in film, and if you open your mind to him and simply soak in the beautiful black and white tones, you may come to love The Good German as much as I did. It's a modernized classic that touches brilliantly on Soderbergh's capabilities in a constrained medium and shows how cinema in general can be timeless. Give this great, modern black and white a chance if you think you can handle the winding, mysterious plot.
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