From intensely personal weirdness
to slick big-budget romps
, remakes of Russian sci-fi classics
and minimalist melodrama
, Steven Soderbergh is a director with a prodigious hunger for experiments. His refreshing sense of play is consistently rewarding even if the results aren't always successful. Early this year, the simultaneous theatrical, DVD, and online release of Bubble
failed to kick off a revolution in distribution, and I seriously doubt that The Good German
, a faux 1940s noir shot with period technology, is going to cause an "authentic production" movement in motion pictures.
"They don't make 'em like they used to" is a common enough complaint, and you have to admire Soderbergh for asking why the hell not? Right down from the opening credits to the poster design and handsome black-and-white photography, The Good German looks and feels like a lost postwar movie. George Clooney and Cate Blanchett bring star glamor to bombed-out 1945 Berlin, and stock footage of the destroyed city blends in nicely to create a film that wants to exist in an ahistorical space somewhere between The Third Man, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Casablanca. And like that North African city just a few years before, Berlin provides the perfect lawless setting for a shadowy thriller, a place where nobody can be trusted, everybodys for sale, and people with dark secrets need to procure papers to leave so schnell wie möglich.
Based on a novel by Joseph Kanon, the plot is a twisty melange of influences, essentially watering down the central section of Gravitys Rainbow
: while the victors are carving up Europe, Germany's rocket scientists are being recruited for the wars of the future. But instead of Tyrone "Rocketman" Slothrop, we get George Clooney as a war correspondent covering the Potsdam conference, Cate Blanchett as a German dame with a mysterious history, and a wicked Tobey Maguire playing a hometown boy who's not nearly as apple-pie as he seems.
For a while, especially while Maguire is in the picture, The Good German feels like it might succeed--not as film-geek experiment but as ageless thriller. But just when the film should begin to click, Soderbergh abandons the real concerns of any era of film making--telling a compelling story--for an empty exercise in stylishness. We learn about a past romance between Clooney and Blanchett, but there is little chemistry between them, and the plot gets muddier by the minute.
A film noir doesn't have to make too much sense (Raymond Chandler famously had no idea who snuffed one of the victims in The Maltese Falcon), but at least the emotions have to be readable. In The Good German, its all a blur, and the clever allusions end up overwhelming the movie. By the time Clooney and Blanchett say goodbye while the propeller plane readies for takeoff, postmodern pastiche has taken over. It's hard to feel for their fate when you're counting the ways in which The Good German rips off Casablanca. As the movie tries to elbow its way into a history that's already been written, you realize that there's no room for it.