December 23, 2006

MOVIES: The Good German (Steven Soderbergh, 2006)

World War II is over, and American journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) has arrived in Berlin to cover the Potsdam peace conference. His driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), is an enterprising young man who's taking advantage of the black market to cash in as quickly as possible, even offering Jake an hour with his girlfriend. She is Lena (Cate Blanchett), and as chance would have it, she had been Jake's lover during his pre-war stint in Berlin. Her husband disappeared during the war's final months, and she's been forced to turn to prostitution to survive.

When an American soldier is found dead in Potsdam, Jake -- ever the reporter -- can't resist investigating, even when the evidence keeps leading him back to Lena and the mystery of what she might have done to survive the war.

Soderbergh has gone to great lengths to re-create the look of a 1940s movie, using period lenses, mikes, and cameras; and avoiding modern technology as much as possible. Sadly, his black-and-white photography (the cinematography is credited to "Peter Andrews," which is a Soderbergh pseudonym) isn't very good; faces are often lost in shadows that are too dark or in light that glares too brightly.

Also paying the price for Soderbergh's period fetishism is Thomas Newman's fine score. As if we actually were watching a mediocre 60-year-old print, there are frequent dropouts of sound, pitch wobbles, and volume fluctuations; there's so much of this gimmickry that it becomes distracting.

The actors don't quite get the period feel, either, though that is at least partly a function of the story. In a Bogart film, we'd have had obvious villains and heros; modern psychological ambiguity would have been out of place, and its presence here keeps us from ever really buying the movie as a period piece. Cate Blanchett looks particularly uncomfortable, delivering poorly written dialogue in a wavering Dietrich accent, and never convincing us that she has (or ever had) any genuine feelings for any of the movie's men.

None of the characters, in fact, are terribly convincing or interesting, and when the technical gimmicks finally wear out their welcome, I found myself just waiting for the movie to end. And it does, eventually, with Clooney and Blanchett on an airport runway in a moment straight out of Casablanca (Blanchett is even wearing the type of hat Ingrid Bergman wore). It takes a lot of confidence to invite such direct comparisons to a masterpiece, and for The Good German, the confidence isn't justifed.

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