Miles On Movies

The Good German

reviewed by R. Miles Mendenhall

A price too high for survival? George Clooney is our equivalent of Cary
Grant? Can Steven Soderbergh make a 1940’s brooding noir thriller using the
movie making technology of that era? All of these questions and more are
answered, or at least addressed, in “The Good German.”

I’m a sucker for this genre. This grey period of history, after the war,
before the peace, in early occupied Germany. One of the greatest noir films
about moral ambiguity and evil, The Third Man is the classic. Maybe it’s
Joseph Cotton, maybe Orson Wells, maybe the Theramin soundtrack, but I don’t
think it’s been topped.

Gravities Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is not only the best comic dope novel,
but also captures the weirdness and ambiguity of that interregnum.

The Good German has a lot to measure up to. Soderbergh steps up, but

Tobey Maguire plays an enthusiastically sleazy young GI who’s a mover and
shaker in the Black Market. His speech to Russian General Sikorsky, played
by Ravil Isaynov, about the coming investment opportunities is priceless in
its opportunism and ethically challenged sincerity.

Sir Clooney is a reporter returned to Berlin to cover the Potsdam
conference, but covert interests have other plans for him. Cate Blanchett is
a proverbial femme fatale. Her world weary, and man weary, demeanor covers a
complex web of motivations and emotional scars. They all get torn open.

Leland Orser plays U.S. Army prosecutor Bernie Tetal, who has to bow to U.S.
national interests that compromise his pursuit of war criminals. This little
known history is one of the most disturbing and characteristic of that era.
I you’re not familiar with how we got our rocket scientists, and our
anti-Communist hunters, it’s well worth looking into.

Veteran Australian actor Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, Flesh & Blood) ably
plays a U.S. Senator who is the voice of the establishment.

A new world is being shaped, and complex forces are jockeying for position.

Soderbergh, who shot, edited, as well as directed, creates some great
images. I like the use of original footage cut in with scenes shot to
recreate the era, and scenes shot in front of original footage, in retro
technique from that time.

There’s one scene in a crowd near the end that visually harkens back to the
styles of Eisenstein’s “Potemkin” and Well’s “Citizen Caine”. But here the
motivation of the antagonist remains frustratingly blurry.

Great noir, like “The Maltese Falcon” or “Casablanca”, requires a puzzle
whose pieces finally and finely click together with machine-like precision.
“The Good German” isn’t as precisely milled as needed to stand the test of
time. A sound and interesting effort, worth seeing and full of striking
images, but it will leave you a bit dissatisfied, both morally and because
of frustrating narrative gaps.

The issues: the start of the Cold War, what price survival in an insane
situation, how people are changed by war and inhumanity, makes it an
important film. But the execution (sic.) needs something, it’s hard to
define, but we know it when we see it, and I didn’t see it here.

Ol’ George sure can take a repeated series of beatings and come back for
more. That’s called acting.

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