The Good German
Director / DP / Editor: Steven Soderbergh / Writer: Paul Attanasio (From Joseph Kanon’s book) / Score: Thomas Newman
Cast: George Clooney / Cate Blanchett / Tobey Maguire / Beau Bridges / Tony Curran / Robin Weigert
If It Bleeds, It Leads…
The Good German is a little film with an impeccable pedigree, so it’s wise to pay attention to pictures like these. They don’t get made all that often these days and, when they are, they tend to be ‘passion projects’, made on tiny budgets, by film-makers who can afford to step-off the carousel once-in-a-while and do something off-beat. In other words, you have to Feed The Beast in order to Tend The Garden. So it is here.
Let’s start with the script. It came courtesy of Paul Attanasio, a writer as experienced in cult TV (i.e. ‘The Wire’) as military-themed pictures (i.e. ‘The Sum of All Fears’), so I’d like to think The Good German (‘TGG’) was something of a slow burner he’d kept in his drawer, waiting for the stars to align in its favour. The truth, however is a little more prosaic, as the story was originally a novel by Joseph Kanon and Attanasio ‘merely’ adapted it for the screen; a process easier said, than done, as we all know.
Key to making an effective transition to the screen was its director and in Steven Soderbergh, the project found its champion. A rarity in Hollywood – a true auteur – Soderbergh was well-versed in classic cinema and again, I can see the attraction in shooting something intended from the beginning, to be a critical rather than a commercial darling. How can I be so sure? Because TGG would be cut to the old 1.66:1 aspect ratio AND although shot in colour, would be desaturated in-post, to produce a B&W picture: traditionally, the ‘kiss of death’ to a film’s commercial potential (as was reaffirmed in this case). There’s more: Soderbergh’s shoot would light each (staged) scene with old-fashioned, ‘warm’ incandescent lighting and capture sound with good-ole boom mics, as opposed to contemporary body-mics. This pared-down, back-to-basics approach would reduce production costs and produce an authentic, Noir-inflected picture, especially as Soderbergh would double-up as his own DP…
The evocative, period-correct score by Thomas Newman set the thing in-motion, with George Clooney as an early sign-on. Clooney had already worked on many films with Soderbergh (i.e. The ‘Ocean’s’ trilogy, Solaris, etc), so I can see this being an easy ‘yes’, given the shoot would be quick; an ‘amuse bouché’ between larger projects. That rationale, coupled with the prospect of working with Soderbergh, was probably what attracted both Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett to the project.
As to the picture itself, things start promisingly, with a retro-style Warner Bros. logo that slides into period-effect, faux-newsreel footage of post-war Berlin, 1945. Maguire is an unfortunate piece of casting, it has to be said. His army pool-driver, Tully, is an unstable, twitchy man-child, who looks barely out of his teens, so how he can say to his latest passenger ‘The War was the best thing to ever happen to me’, means either he hasn’t lived yet, or he must’ve had a crappy childhood if the rubble of Berlin is better… That passenger would be Clooney’s Jake Geismer, a journalist who was stationed in Berlin before the ‘States declared war on Germany. Back then, he ran a number of ‘stringers’ (local informants), but now he’s back, as a commissioned War Correspondent, assigned to cover the imminent Potsdam peace conference between the victorious Allies.
In common with many GIs of the time and place, Tully has got himself a ‘good time girl’ of his own, on whom he lavishes extra rations, etc. This would be Blanchett’s Lena Brandt, whom she plays with an alluring detachment. Seeing the pair of them together, I was never convinced of their relationship; as played, Lena looks old enough to be Tully’s mother, which meant that I ended-up thinking her aloofness towards Tully was all part of an act for his benefit, as though she was hiding something… Either that, or I really was just overthinking the effect of bad casting!
Tully is then visited by a ‘special-ops’ soldier, who’s looking for ‘Emile Brandt’: ‘a person of significance’ wanted by the USA. When Tully tries to bluff it out, he gets his arm broken for his trouble and seeks-out Lena. Emile is / was her husband, but she’s adamant that he’s long-dead.
Then Tully himself turns-up dead – drowned in a river, following a botched deal with the Russians. This kicks-off Act Two, as we follow Geismer joining-up the dots, beginning with the obvious: Lena used to be one of his stringers… From this, Soderbergh teases-out a straightforward procedural thriller, as Geismer uncovers the truth, both of what his Government is already doing and what they intend to do, with the key scientists they find.
It was during the middle of Act Two, that I began fixating on how Soderbergh had lit Blanchett in order to bring out the line of her angular cheekbones and that’s never a good sign, right? When you’re distracted by the look of a player, as opposed to what they’re delivering? Which is a shame, as Lena’s a convincing, archetypical ‘Femme Fatale’, who’s got at least three men dangling at her mercy.
Clooney is a convincing, archetypical ‘Matinée Idol’, who looks good in a uniform and who moves about the stages with lithe grace, like he belongs there and knows it; they both do, actually. The other players are okay but I have quibbles beyond the misguided presence of Mr. Maguire, namely the choice of having a Scotsman running a bar, not a month after the end of hostilities? Baffling: this can’t have been intended as an imitation of some obscure regional dialect, as the other German characters all speak with local accents!
An even bigger problem I have, is that Soderbergh chops the plot into three acts and gives one each to his principles. This has the effect of changing the film’s – and the narrative’s – perspectives, so it’s harder to find a character to empathise with and God knows I tried; Geismer gets knocked about two or three times in this picture, yet I struggled to care whether he’d make it to the end of the last reel. The film would’ve been more successful had the P.O.V. stuck with Geismer throughout; we’d have seen him take his lumps and STILL put it together. Clooney isn’t given the space to show-off in the picture. All those wry smiles and his natural ‘sass’ have been lost in a film that might’ve gained a little soul as a result of their inclusion. At the time, maybe the actor took the decision to ‘lose himself’ in the production and give space to the others around him, but I’m not asking for a ‘turned-up-to-eleven’ Clooney, just occasional flashes of a ‘seven-to-eight’; something, anything that would elevate his thinly-drawn, apathetic character. As it is, Soderbergh’s approach shows us too much – and too little – to be engaging. Instead, it’s boring.
That’s regretful, given the questions we’re being asked to consider. The clue’s in the title, by the way: ‘The Good German’ alludes to a citizen of Nazi Germany who was not directly to blame for the Holocaust and ‘did not see it’ or witness it. When GIs forced local townsfolk to visit – and help clean-up – their local Concentration Camps, many citizens were aghast, claiming they were ‘Good Germans’ who had no knowledge, tacit or otherwise, of what had gone on…
So the film’s message is therefore one of guilt; of just how much is prepared to be tolerated – and forgotten – by the Allies, in order to secure the Nazi’s scientists. Moreover, how does that apply to an individual who may themselves be guilty – even by association – but who’s knowledge & skills are deemed valuable? It’s an interesting question, though it’s fumbled by the picture, thanks to Soderbergh’s piecemeal approach to the narrative. I haven’t read Kanon’s source novel, but I’d be interested to learn whether the narrative was as disjointed there, as well.
If it was Soderbergh’s intention all along, to make a film in the 1940’s Noir style, then he triumphed. Unfortunately, the star names attracted to the project, ended-up in roles so thin and disjointed that I struggled to care about any of them. Then again, without an ending that’s pastiching Casablanca’s, I might’ve been more generous to start with…
If this is what ‘Tending the Garden’ looks like, then there’s a reason why passion-projects don’t get made all that often these days: traditional studios can’t afford to lose the money, which is where online streamers such as Netflix enters the frame. Their business model thrives on giving film-makers time, space and budgets to pursue their dreams and, maybe, Soderbergh was just 10 years ahead of his time: not that more time would’ve polished this relic. If anything, the lesson I came away with on finishing TGG, merely echoes screenwriter William Goldman: ‘Nobody knows anything’… If they did, maybe tosh like this wouldn’t get green-lit and we’d all be watching better pictures…
You can never really get out of Berlin.