Having previously preached affinity for the workmanlike career of John Huston, Steven Soderbergh now attempts to mimic old-school studio auteur Michael Curtiz with The Good German, a throwback to Casablanca shot as if it were a 1945 Warner Bros. picture. This means that Soderbergh’s black-and-white cinematography is framed at the mid-century standard 1.66:1 aspect ratio and utilizes fixed focal-length lenses and incandescent lighting, all the action has been staged on backlots or L.A. locations, and Thomas Newman’s sweeping score aims for Max Steiner grandeur. Technically, the director’s latest cinematic experiment is some kind of minor triumph, authentically capturing the smoky, shadowy look and feel of the period’s noir-ish melodramas. Yet there also isn’t a moment when The Good German‘s artifice—so self-consciously “faithful” that it borders on stilted, suffocating parody—isn’t as depressingly hollow as a spent bullet casing. Adapted from Joseph Kanon’s novel, the retro film sets its mystery in post-WWII Berlin on the eve of the Potsdam convention and the U.S.‘s atomic bomb attack on Japan, with war correspondent Jake Geismer (a vacant, out-of-place George Clooney) arriving in the rubble-strewn capital to cover the historic peace conference, but instead finding himself embroiled in intrigue after locating his former German mistress Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett).
The Russians and Americans are commencing the Cold War by competing to find Lena’s husband Emil (Christian Oliver), whose involvement in a German rocket program conducted at a concentration camp makes him vitally important to each country’s escalating arms race. The who, what, where, when, and why of this instantly convoluted narrative, however, are completely inconsequential, as from the outset the story reveals itself to be nothing but an airless dramatic void that Soderbergh desperately tries to cover up with his superficially striking copycat mise-en-scène. Frank discussions of the Holocaust, the Allied Powers’s self-interested profiteering from the Nazi’s downfall, and the nature of culpability—as well as regular profanity and some brief nudity—all come off as rickety attempts to deconstruct the Production Code’s whitewashed depictions of war, an endeavor that proves neither novel nor illuminating. Aside from the chuckles elicited by Tobey Maguire’s foul-mouthed routine as an amoral motor pool roughneck and the luminously lit Cate Blanchett’s German accent (think Marlene Dietrich as filtered through Count Dracula), the only other response induced by this glorified art school project-cum-nostalgia trip is overpowering indifference. It’s a political tale with no significant contemporary reverberations, a turgid espionage-tinged romance with no soul, and a play-it-again aesthetic showpiece without a point.