"The Good German" is a prime example of a movie made by highly skilled and intelligent filmmakers that nevertheless seems misguided from the get-go. In attempting to make a movie that mimics a 1940s Hollywood romantic thriller, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Paul Attanasio have concocted what amounts to perhaps the most elaborate film-school exercise ever mounted by a major studio.
George Clooney plays Jake Geismer, an American war correspondent who returns to 1945 Berlin for the first time since the late '30s and is greeted with rampant corruption from all quarters. Ostensibly there to cover the Allies' Potsdam conference, he is really on a mission to track down a former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), whose husband is being sought by both the Americans and the Russians because of his connection to a Nazi rocket scientist both camps are vying for.
According to Lena, her husband is dead, but she's a slinky, sultry Marlene-Dietrich type, so naturally we assume she's lying. Also part of the murk is Tully (Tobey Maguire), an Army soldier with major ties to Lena and the black market. This fresh-faced kid is a born profiteer. Just about everyone in this movie is, with the conspicuous exception of Jake. He may seem wised-up, but he's as callow as the Joseph Cotten character in "The Third Man," which was set in labyrinthine postwar Vienna.
Soderbergh himself – using the pseudonym Peter Andrews – shot the film in black and white using a single camera and '40s-era lenses. He also employs rear-projection imagery and studio backlot sets. With all this effort, one might expect something gorgeous, or at least gorgeously antiquated. But the imagery has a contrast heavy, almost radioactive, sheen that is poles apart from, say, "Casablanca," one of the film's touchstones.
It's possible that the filmmakers, in adapting Joseph Kanon's novel, were deliberately attempting to subvert the look and feel of those '40s movies. Certainly the subject matter is more explicit than would have been permitted back then – one of the lead characters is unquestionably a prostitute, for example, another, her pimp. But whether "The Good German" is regarded as an exercise in style or antistyle matters little in the end. The net effect is one of massive self-indulgence.
The cast seems as hammerlocked as the production team. Clooney tries manfully to inject some old-time movie feeling into his underwritten part, and it makes sense he should be in this film – he is the contemporary actor most easily compared to Bogart. But, like the rest of the performers, his acting seems to be taking place inside quotation marks. Actually, the entire movie seems to be enclosed in quotations. Grade: C+
• Rated R for language, violence and some sexual content.
Sex/Nudity: 9 instances including nudity, innuendo, and a sex scene. Violence: 12 scenes. Profanity: 40 often harsh expression. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 21 scenes of smoking, 9 scenes of drinking.