Steven Soderbergh has made some excellent films. He is among the most diverse and visually interesting directors working in the mainstream today, one often willing to take risks on unusual projects. The Good German is such a gambit: a black-and-white noir thriller dealing with Nazis, Russians, and femme fatales, Soderbergh has recreated the look of old Hollywood right down to the use of stock footage and back-projection, with a brash orchestral film score to boot. Unfortunately he’s served up a turkey here.
The plot is dire, airport-novel stuff: set just after the end of the war as the Americans, French and Russians are carving up Berlin, we follow Jacob Geismer (George Clooney), an Army journalist, as he tries to solve a murder. Poor source material is compounded by poor adaptation: the script plods forward in episodic fashion, without pausing to build tension. Clues are dropped one-by-one in a breadcrumb trail that bounces Geismer from one exposition to another, but the back-story is as muddy by the end as at the beginning.
Attempts at tension keep the stakes ludicrously high: A-bomb scientists and Holocaust traitors. The resulting dialogue is more comic-book than Graham Greene. There is a modern lack of subtlety – swearing, sex and rape would have been handled with much more care in Forties cinema, and here seems oddly out of place.
The acting is second-rate: Clooney, Soderbergh’s long-time partner, has little to do with such a featureless character, and Tobey Maguire’s wheeler-dealing trigger-tempered Tully is frankly embarrassing – a kindergarten copy of Jake Gyllenhaal’s role in Jarhead. Only Blanchett appears to understand the project and have the talent to carry it through: and her Lena Brandt is a careful study of Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich.
Replica shots from Citizen Kane, The Third Manand others abound. But this invites comparisons the film can’t sustain. The final scene – shot-for-shot the same as Casablanca – raised the spirits of the press-screening audience, but also highlighted how flaccid and unengaging Clooney and Blanchett’s characters were. The fact is those films weren’t made great by their visual style – for the most part, they had none. They relied on great scripts, with clever dialogue between well-drawn characters. The Good German lacks all three.
The film does look fantastic, with bombed-out Berlin rendered in rich detail, and clever CGI use of old stock footage to broaden the film’s scope. There are moments when Soderbergh’s directorial style and skill shine through. But this kind of superficial film-making is better off in advertisements than in cinema and without a script of any merit to back things up, The Good German cannot even live up to its lacklustre title.