When everyone tells you you’re drunk, you’d better lie down.
That phrase echoed in my mind as I watched Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, starring George Clooney as a journalist drawn into a Byzantine noir-ish mystery in postwar Berlin. The reviews have been so uniformly negative that I hoped it had simply been misunderstood—that there was something there worth defending; but it turns out to be a rare case where a restless auteur doesn’t confound unimaginative critics (which I think Brian De Palma did this year with The Black Dahlia) but instead reinforces their worst-case suspicions about his weaknesses. It’s not actively awful, but it’s so ambitious, and so misguided and ill-thought-out, that its floundering is somehow more painful. The phrase “filmmaking exercise” is an accurate description. The Good German was conceived as a tribute to, and subversion of, 1940s Hollywood tropes and tics—or so I was led to believe by advance press trumpeting Soderbergh’s devotion to classical Hollywood framing, lighting, transitions and camera moves. Unfortunately, that same phrase explains why the film’s so shallow, aloof, disorganized and (most surprisingly) technically sloppy. It is mostly definitely an exercise—not a movie, but a notion of a movie. The notion seems half-baked, but it’s hard to say for sure. How do you parse a morass?
Adapted by Paul Attanasio from a novel by Joseph Kanon, The Good German is set in 1945 on the eve of the Pottsdam conference. George Clooney stars as Jake Geismer, an American war correspondent returning to his old stomping grounds, where he was stationed during the height of European combat; he’s supposedly in Berlin to cover the conference, but he’s really there to locate his ex-lover Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Soon enough Jake gets drawn into a murder investigation centering on a now-deceased rocket scientist who used to date Lena, and Lena’s current lover Tully (Tobey Maguire), an shifty, amoral American G.I. who happens to be Jake’s driver and who’s tangled up with the Russians.
As the movie unfolds, Soderbergh cooks up a kind of Old Movie Stew—a hybrid of The Third Man, Casablanca, Judgment at Nuremberg and Open City, a mix of Neorealist social drama, film noir and message picture, spiced with deliberately jarring contemporary touches, including profanity, post-Joseph Heller world-weariness, nasty violence and frank sex. (Tully’s narrated segment about postwar Berlin as scumbag heaven includes a slow tracking shot of an ecstatic, leering Tully jackrabbiting a prostitute from behind; to quote Manohla Dargis’ definitive takedown, “Here’s looking at you, kid, flung over the bed and on your knees.”) Berlin circa 1945 is depicted as a decadent ruin where conquering armies and their private patrons exploit chaos for influence and profit. Everybody’s running a scam, shading their past or outright pretending to be something they’re not—all pro forma elements of the aformentioned genres, none of which Soderbergh quite manages to personalize and possess. With its glancing interest in individual vs. collective guilt and its contrast of faux-Old Hollywood gloss and ’70s movie degradation, The Good German seems to want to say, “The language of old Hollywood movies was an outgrowth of bourgeois American morality and the profit motive—ergo, old movie style conceals mundane and unpleasant human truths while protecting the powerful and reproducing their ideology.” But what comes out is more like, “Old Hollywood movies are full of shit. Now watch this crane shot!”
Granted, this is all somewhat more promising than the Oscar season norm. And it’s more than you usually get from a film school thesis paper blockbuster—a subcategory of critics’ darling that’s proliferated like toadstools in the past decade or so, comprised of movies that foreground their influences. The short list includes Boogie Nights, the Psycho remake, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, Road to Perdition, Roman Coppola’s superb and rarely-seen CQ, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Schindler’s List and pretty much any Soderbergh film that’s either set in the past (Kafka) or derived from an older film or films (The Underneath, Ocean’s 11 and 12, Solaris). If you’re up on the director’s references, these sorts of films tend to be superficially interesting even if they fail to engage your emotions (or don’t try to). But through the years I’ve gotten to the point where it’s no longer enough for a movie to amuse me with its academic density and self-awareness; I also want to be moved, or at least enthralled, and the likelihood of that happening decreases in proportion to a director’s tendency to quote other films rather than fully transform them (as Spielberg unquestionably did in Schindler’s List). Boogie Nights and Far from Heaven, for instance, strike me as obsessively fussed-over anthologies of homage elements rather than movies that satisfy on their own sweet terms. If not for certain engaging performances (Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore in Nights, Dennis Quaid in Heaven) they’d have put me to sleep; rather that sit through them again, I’d rather re-read Robert F. Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness, which is smarter than any one of these movies, and funnier, too. (My favorite of this list is the widely maligned Road to Perdition; it’s more openly sentimental than any of its subgenre compatriots, but much more visually and rhythmically imaginative; its Night of the Hunter-inspired, black-and-white-in-color photography and its thematically complex Jude Law subplot likening photography to spiritual murder are more striking than any of Paul Thomas Anderson’s bumper-cars Steadicam shots.) Unfortunately, German is the weakest entry yet in this burgeoning category. It fumbles and stumbles without finding an attitude, much less a sense of purpose, and it isn’t cheeky, surprising or disturbing enough to repackage its deficiencies as conscious provocations (which would have made it into a punkish anti-movie—the sort of film Alex Cox did so brilliantly in the 1980s). Over the course of its mercifully brief running time, The Good German fragments itself into thirds, each one told from the point-of-view of Jake, Lena and Tully. This sounds intriguing, but because the movie never coalesces into a clear vision—or even a smart riff on modern filmmaking’s debt to, or repudiation of, old techniques—the result is tedious and depressing, like watching a zeppelin deflate.
Plus, visually it’s a bust—surprisingly so, given its advance press. Exhibit A is the film’s monochrome photography. It might seem impressive in a no-budget indie (like every Soderbergh film since Traffic, this one was shot by Soderbergh himself under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), but it doesn’t get anywhere near the look of a ’40s studio picture; it looks more like a contemporary riff on the idea of “old movies,” as executed by film school students with more brass than money or experience. There’s no subtlety in the gray scale, and the blacks and whites aren’t sharply etched enough for Soderbergh to claim that he was aping German Expressionism or American film noir. What’s onscreen just looks poorly executed; the blacks are often crushed, killing detail within shadows, and in scenes juxtaposing foregrounded interiors against daylight exteriors glimpsed through windows and doors, the sunlit areas are blown out, in the manner of a TV series shot on Super 16mm (for example, FX’s Rescue Me) or a microbudget Mini-DV drama. These tells are acceptable as long as they jibe with the intent of the piece, but here, they just don’t. (Perhaps the approach was too obvious to start with. The gold standard for this sort of movie is Chinatown, a film whose style pushed against its period story—a slow-paced, down-and-dirty, overtly political noir, shot in color and anamorphic widescreen.)
Considering Soderbergh’s supposed fidelity to a particular filmmaking school, I’m disappointed that more critics haven’t called him out for anachronisms and conceptual sloppiness. (Dargis, who has a good eye, is the highest-profile exception.) Despite the film’s rear projections, its Orson Welles/Carol Reed mouse-eye-view shots, Thomas Newman’s intentionally overbearing score (like Max Steiner drunk on cough syrup) and other conspicuous elements, German looks and feels more early ’60s than mid ’40s. That pretty much queers the idea of setting the film’s visuals in direct opposition to the characters’ language and behavior. Imagine a thinly imagined, R-rated tribute to The Pawnbroker or Carol Reed’s The Key, with jagged, slightly off-rhythm edits and truncated sequences that are meant to mimic the classic Hollywood, get-in-and-get-out approach, but which instead seem to have been impulsively aborted in mid-thought. (An early driving-and-talking scene between Tully and Jake ends with a combination of a bad line, a lame double-take and a clumsily timed wipe that just about the most amateurish thing I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie this year.) Even the performances are a shade dull. Clooney is less reminiscent of Bogart or Clark Gable (who he sent up in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) than Rock Hudson or Victor Mature. Blanchett so overdoes the brooding husky siren thing that at times she seems to have been secretly replaced by a female impersonator imitating Cate Blanchett imitating Marlene Dietrich. The only memorable performance comes from Tobey Maguire, who’s been getting the worst reviews of the three stars. Aptly described by Lena as “a boy, not a man,” his Tully is twerpy and obnoxious, a nerd who gets off on being bad, and Maguire uses his reedy voice and glassy-eyed stare for unnerving effects. (He’s like an elf gone to seed.) It’s an in-your-face, heavily intellectualized character turn, but even if you hate it, you have to give Maguire credit: at least he has a vivid idea that he’s pointedly trying to execute. That’s more than you can say for his director.
What happened? It’s a puzzling fiasco. Due to the obviously exhaustive research and planning that must have gone into it, The Good German could not possibly have been as tossed-off as Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Oceans 12 or the HBO series K Street and Unscripted. Soderbergh’s I’m-just-winging-it projects announced their improvisational nature up front, which meant they had to be graded on a curve, like gesture sketches or free-form jazz improvs. There can’t be a curve this time. German is modeled on rigorously formal 1940s Hollywood movies, but with a cynical 21st century spirit. Because it fails in the first department and smugly overcompensates in the second, it’s worse than a letdown; it verges on an insult.
Whatever Soderbergh’s stated purpose in making The Good German, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that it came about for the same specious reasons as most of his post-Erin Brockovich/The Limey work—because he likes jumping from style to style like Julia Roberts trying on hats. Granted, this isn’t a news flash; from Kafka onward, Soderbergh’s filmography has been mainly interested in subverting, exploring and commenting upon film history, technology and language, mostly at the expense of conventional moviemaking satisfactions. Soderbergh’s most confident when he’s being playful, but except for The Limey—his career best film, and one of the greatest American features of the ’90s—he rarely makes movies that are both fun and deep. Maybe Soderbergh realizes this, and it’s why, post-Oscar, he’s gravitated toward unabashed formal noodling.
But if The Good German is the latest example of Soderbergh at play, he needs to get out more. I no longer sense much urgency or wit in his filmmaking. His hero Jean-Luc Godard has become a sour old professor, but there’s still a fire there, a pugnacious soothsayer quality; it’s hard to tell what drives Soderbergh beyond sheer restlessness, and it’s become harder to discern his opinion toward any subject he’s tackled since Traffic. He’s in love with making movies, so he makes movies that tell you how much he loves making movies. Onanism is fun, but it’s not a spectator sport.