Starring: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire and Jack Thompson
Director: Steven Soderbergh
THERE’S much to be said in favour of historical novels that illuminate the present by exploring the past.
There’s safety in hindsight, and nostalgia too, especially for times not too far removed from our own.
This is very much the case with a spate of novels written from the mid-1990s onwards, about World War II and its immediate aftermath.
Alan Furst and Phillip Kerr are perhaps the best writers of this “retro” genre which re-creates with powerful prose and historical accuracy the murky, clandestine world of Allied and NKVD (Soviet) operatives fighting a secret war against both Hitler and each other, with their sights focused clearly and opportunistically on the post-war world.
These covert machinations and intrigues reached a frenzy of activity in the interregnum between the defeat of Germany and the beginning of the Cold War.
One reason for the success of Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd is curiosity about the spying agencies that did so much to create the structure of our times.
And it is not coincidental perhaps that this film and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German both use “good” ironically in their titles, implying that what is “good” in the shady, ambiguous world of espionage can never be absolute.
Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon, The Good German is set during the summer of 1945, and begins with Jacob Geismer (George Clooney), a captain in the US Army and a war correspondent for The New Republic, arriving in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference, during which the United States, Britain and Russia will determine the future of the recently conquered Germany, and divide the spoils.
Geismer is allocated an American driver, Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire), whose home town charm and affability is soon revealed as hiding a greedy covetousness and propensity for violence.
Geismer was a bureau chief in Berlin before the war, and it is soon obvious that it is not the conference which has drawn the writer back to Berlin, but his search for a former lover.
When the body of Tully, exposed as a black marketeer, is found dead with a bullet in his back in a lake in the Russian zone, Geismer is perplexed as to why neither the Russians or the Americans are keen to investigate the murder.
Unable to attend the conference because his wallet and identification have been stolen, Geismer decides to investigate the murder himself, spurred by the discovery that his former lover Lena (Cate Blanchett) has survived the war, and is working as a prostitute, in the course of which her path has crossed with Tully’s.
What begins as a murder mystery becomes something more dangerous and personal, as Geismer’s quest to solve the mystery of Tully’s murder and revive his relationship with Lena leads to his uncovering dark secrets relating to both the atrocities of the past, and the uncertain future.
As a director of films as diverse in style and subject matter as sex, lies, and videotape, The Limey, Traffic, Solaris, and Oceans Eleven and Twelve, Steven Soderburgh has chosen to make The Good German in the black and white film noir style of Hollywood films of the 1940s, notably Casablanca.
And while this makes for interesting viewing at first, with the film’s logo and credits presented in the old aspect ratio 1.37:1 before moving to the wide screen, The Good German loses narrative power, along with its historical and contemporary relevance, by becoming simply derivative.
Kanon’s multi-layered novel has been resculpted by screenwriter Paul Attanasio to make the story more consonant with the film’s noir style.
Cate Blanchett’s Lena has hair like Veronica Lake and a low-pitched German accent much like the husky tones of Marlene Dietrich.
George Clooney, chunky in his belted captain’s jacket, resembles Clark Gable more than ever before, while the film’s ending is a clumsy, oddly irrelevant salute to the last scene in Casablanca.
There are scenes where some of the film’s characters are seen cleverly superimposed against archival footage – Geismer walking the rubble-strewn streets of bombed out Berlin, Jack Thompson as US Congressman Breimer, jockeying for a place at the Potsdam Conference table alongside other celebrated names and faces.
These scenes with their gritty black and white realism feel authentic, and momentarily pique the imagination.
But where it counts, in sketching the complexities in human nature or delineating some sense of the secret places in the psyche where diabolic schemes are hatched, The Good German fails in large measure to convince and entertain.