The Good German
Dir. Steven Soderbergh. 2006. R. 105mins. George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire.
Like Far from Heaven and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, The Good German employs a classical film language but updates it for modern times. These goals tend to cancel each other out—the updates undermine the mimicry—and Soderbergh, incorporating four-letter words, seems to embrace that contradiction. German scans as an inversion of Casablanca in which the Ilsa character is married to someone other than a resistance hero.
The inspirations here are wartime and postwar melodramas like The Third Man and A Foreign Affair. But the plot—from Joseph Kanon’s 2001 novel—gives off a ’70s Hollywood vibe, in part because the protagonist misses as many beats as Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes. In 1945 Berlin, army correspondent Jake Geismer (Clooney) investigates the murder of a corporal (Maguire, too soft-spoken for the period), which may be tied to both Jake’s old flame (Blanchett, doing Dietrich) and the fate of German scientists post-Potsdam.
Although Soderbergh shot with appropriately antiquated lenses, the images look too soft for a hard-edged drama, and his blocking often seems incongruous with ’40s studio filmmaking. (Maguire punches Blanchett instead of slapping her, and the subsequent low-angle shot seems pilfered from Orson Welles) Even so, The Good German confirms Soderbergh as a contemporary Michael Curtiz—a capable craftsman even when he missteps. (Opens Dec 22; see www.timeout.com/chicago/nowplaying for showtimes.)—Ben Kenigsberg