The Good German Art of Darkness
Steven Soderbergh’s Homage to Film Noir Successfully Blends Style and Content
Based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Kanon (2001), The Good German is a romantic thriller about an American war correspondent who returns to post-war Berlin in search of the German woman who was once his lover.
In an homage to film noir classics such as Casablanca and The Third Man, director Steven Soderbergh has daringly made this heavily stylized and highly atmospheric black and white film adaptation look as if it were produced in 1940s.
The use of the classic studio style, techniques, cinematic conventions and visual vocabulary from film noir all combine to result in a very different cinematic experience for contemporary audiences.
The only subversions in this pastiche come when the 1940s trappings clash with the use of strong language, display of sex and violence that would have never been allowed under the Production Code of the day.
In this labour of love, Soderbergh replicates the camera work of the 1940s by using vintage fixed focal-length lenses to shoot the film. Technically this creates a wider field of vision than is possible with the zoom lenses of today and alters the expressive sense of fictional space.
Other noir elements include the marvelously accentuated expressionistic camera angles and the use of incandescent lighting for dramatic effect. The film favours murky shadows and a slightly smudged look. Soderbergh insisted that the sound was recorded with the techniques of the time through a boom microphone held just over the actors’ heads.
His attention to period detail also covered the style of the musical score that is in something of a Max Steiner mode, a la Casablanca. The Good German also uses archival footage edited to blend with scenes shot on sound stages and on Universal Studios’ backlot. While clearly a further homage to the studio style also a choice, Soderbergh admits, that made the film much cheaper to make than filming on location.
The story of The Good German unfolds in a bombed-out Berlin where the world powers gather to draw up a new map of Europe at Potsdam. The city has been divided between the Americans, Russians, French and British like the booty being shared after a robbery. But it quickly becomes evident that even bigger spoils are at stake.
Whilst military lawyers sift through records to see who will stand trial for war crimes, the Russians are racing to kidnap nuclear scientists off the streets and get them out of Germany before the Americans beat them to it.
The Good German may be nostalgic when it comes to style and presentation, but it refrains from offering a sentimental vision of the past. Its central premise seems to be that the Cold War was inevitable; it began the moment the Nazis were defeated, even before the peace with Japan had been declared.
Characterization in the film is well developed and the three main characters all deliver strong performances. The story is revealed from their individual vantage points with voice over narration. Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a small-town boy from the Midwest, who drives bigwigs from the U.S. army around the city, whilst on the side he is a duplicitous black marketeer and a pimp.
This baby-faced corporal is a disconcerting mixture of boyishness, opportunism, easy malevolence and latent sadism – he is able to rhapsodize to Captain Jake Geismer about his mom’s wonderful apple pie and then moments later offer him ‘an hour’ with his girlfriend. It turns out that this very same girlfriend, Lena, is the old flame Jake is looking for.
Playing the different sides off against each other, Tully turns up dead in the Soviet Sector with 100,000 German Marks in his pocket and a bullet in his back.
Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is the chain-smoking official war correspondent and our point of entry into the moral morass that is Berlin in 1945. His character is strongly aligned with that of a traditional hardboiled noir detective. Jake feels compelled to find and protect Lena and investigate Tully’s murder – a murder that the American forces show no concern about.
Encountering resistance and obstruction along the way, Jake becomes embroiled in an elaborate plot, alternating between the official military scene, the bombed-out streets and a seedy underworld.
All leads come back to Lena and her husband Emil Brandt, who she claims is dead. Jake seeks the truth, but ultimately it is a truth he doesn’t want to know. The femme fatale of the film, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) is a Jewish German prostitute whose accent and weary sexuality are deliberately reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich. Lena is both victim and villain - she is a guilty survivor.
There is a rough analogy between Lena and Jake and Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa with the exception that Lena, unlike Ilsa, has become hard, manipulative and indifferent. Lena constantly repeats to Jake that she has ‘survived,’ meaning that she has been forced to sell her soul to stay alive.
Film critics are in general agreement that The Good German can’t be faulted on style, but it can be faulted on substance. The plot is indeed at times intricate and convoluted, in places almost reminiscent of the complexities of The Big Sleep.
The title of the film also sets us up to expect someone in the film to be ‘good," ultimately however, totally good as all the characters are morally compromised in one way or another. And perhaps this is the message: In war, a moral life is no longer possible.
The last scene pays homage to Casablanca and makes for a wonderful iconic ending that is beautifully constructed and filmed. Jake has obtained the papers Lena needs to leave Germany, and it is the moment before she gets on the aeroplane that she reveals to him just what it meant to have ‘survived’ as a Jew in Berlin during the war – that in return for her own life, she gave the names and locations of other Jewish families.
The vision of this film is bleak – noir even by the dark standards of the films that gave the genre its name -- perhaps a fitting final statement for such a dark time.