January 17-23, 2007

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'The Good German'

Photograph by Melinda Sue Gordon
Here's looking at you kid: Cate Blanchett channels Marlene Dietrich in 'The Good German.'

Bombed Out

Steven Soderbergh's 'The Good German': German, perhaps. Good, perhaps not.

By Richard von Busack

THE BIGGEST screen disappointment of last year, The Good German, is now slinking into town. Director Steven Soderbergh fails in his effort to combine the sturdiness of vintage Hollywood plot with today's sensibilities. Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a New Republic correspondent, arrives in Berlin after World War II to watch as the Allies divide up the spoils of Germany. He wears a soldier's uniform: "It was the Army's idea of a joke." Geismer is immediately set upon by a predatory driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), who throws the film out of joint by providing a voice-over narrating. Tully is an opportunist; he says, just as Russ Meyer used to, "The war was the best thing that ever happened to me." Making a patsy out of Geismer, Tully goes back to sexually pound his German mistress, Lena, a fetchingly weary Cate Blanchett—and that most protean of actresses does a Dietrich that's every bit as good as her Kate Hepburn. A sturdy-looking love triangle starts to form, interrupted by murder, MacGuffins and conspiracy.

Copying Casablanca is a mug's game. Instead of "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine," we hear "In this whole goddamn country she ends up fucking my fucking driver." Soderbergh can't re-create the bad poetry of Casablanca any more than he can quite capture the pearly surfaces of black-and-white studio lighting. The wipes he slides across the screen shatter the mood instead of smoothly advancing the plot. Clooney has a fine face for black-and-white, but he's never going to be mistaken for Joseph Cotten. He's not culpable enough, even if he gets beaten up more times than Mike Hammer.

Soderbergh is the film geek's film geek—The Good German is a movie that's inexplicable to anyone who hasn't seen Casablanca thrice and The Third Man 30 times. It's a case of film seduction turned clumsy. There are moments where you want to go along with it, when a Lockheed Elektra revs its propellers on a rainy runway, or when Blanchett spears a man with a contemptuous gaze. And then, inevitably some clumsy line, some baffling scene, throws you off. Yet there's a nugget of unsavory history here. To Soderbergh's credit, he recalls one of the big deceptions of the postwar era: what historian John Gimbel termed the taking of "intellectual reparations." "We don't deal with terrorists," indeed; we have a well-documented history of it. The blasphemy of saying the Good War was as subject to pimping and whoring as any other conflict squeezed a complaint out of The New York Times' Manohla Dargis, who couldn't believe Soderbergh "end(ed) up suggesting that in wartime everyone's hands can become slicked with blood, even a Jew in Nazi Germany." This is also documented history and can and will happen anyplace the human back is pressed hard enough against a wall. Unlike our more optimistic entertainers, Soderbergh stresses that the horror of the Nazis ennobled no one, but trying to reconcile an art that contains both studio entertainments and the accusatory neonoirs of Fassbinder, The Good German doesn't work at all. It's a disaster, not a disgrace.

Movie Times The Good German (R; 105 min.), directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Paul Attanasio, based on the novel by Joseph Kanon, photographed by Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, opens Jan. 19.

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