The Good German (2006), which starred George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, didn’t get many good reviews. Critics seemed to use the movie’s release as a chance to complain about director Stephen Soderbergh’s career. The film’s homages to The Third Man, Casablanca, and Italian neorealism (and probably more references a more serious film buff would get) seem to have annoyed reviewers. There was probably an element of jealousy, too. When not making arty period films in black and white, Soderbergh and Clooney collaborate on the glitzy Oceans 11-12-13 franchise. Soderburgh gets respect and big bucks. Clooney lives in an Italian villa and dates gorgeous women.
Leave all that aside. I saw The Good German on DVD over the weekend and I loved it. Yes, the steals from old black and white films are, at times, pretty blatant. But I love those films, and the use Soderbergh makes of his allusions to them heightens his story.
Soderbergh, under a pseudonym, also edited the film, which means he is responsible for an astonishing scene near the end of the film involving a marching band, a crowd, a paid assassin and the movies’ two main characters.
The final scene is very close to the airport scene in Casablanca, but also inverts it. In Casablanca, Bogart’s Rick discovers his soul at the moment that Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa leaves his side. In The Good German, the two main characters also split up at the airport, but for the opposite reason. (Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.)
Curiously enough, some reviews knocked the cinematography because it wasn’t precisely like the black and white 40’s flicks, with Soderbergh’s film using higher contrast than his models did. Well, yes, that’s right. It’s different. It’s also very effective, focusing our attention on the characters’ eyes, mouths and posture, the conveyors of emotion. It also allows a better blending with the archival footage by which Soderbergh represents postwar Berlin.
At the same time, the sharp contrasts are ironic. We’re in a world of gray in The Good German. It is a microcosm of the moral ambiguity of the Cold War, capturing the U.S./Soviet drama at a point very near its beginning, in a tug-of-war over a German rocketeer who is also a war criminal. To keep him away from the Russians, some American officials want to keep his evil deeds a secret. Rockets “that can go halfway around the world” armed with atomic bombs are “the future,” explains a buffoonish Congressman. And so they were.
Clooney represents the moral certainty that Americans brought into WWII. His disillusionment at the end covers not just the postwar activities of the US government, but the whole notion of human goodness. And that disillusionment is written on Clooney’s high-contrast face, in a devastating long take that closes the movie. The Good German, a cinematic treat on many levels, also bucks “the greatest generation” myth, showing how WWII injected moral relativism into the bloodstream of our national security apparatus, and eventually our body politic. To a degree scarcely acknowledged in pop culture, that war brutalized the Americans who fought it. It changed us. Maybe we were the last innocents, but after the war, there were no innocents. Just the decieved.
I foresee this film’s reputation rising in the near future. Get in now at the ground floor.