The Good German
Even when he fails, director Steven Soderbergh fails magnificently if you can, indeed call films like Solaris (2002) and The Good German (2006) failures. Both have their strengths, while stubbornly refusing to condescend to the lowest common denominator. Both could arguably be called films that were made primarily to please the director and his star-slash-business partner George Clooney, and if you don't like them, well, tough. And both are rather plodding in their pacing, while offering stunning visuals and scripts that may ask the audience to burn a few more brain cells than they're used to burning while watching a motion picture. In The Good German, Soderbergh set out to create a movie in the manner of Michael Curtiz, using black-and-white stock and old-school lenses to recreate the sort of noir experience that made Curtiz films like Casablanca so great. And while The Good German doesn't come close to Curtiz's level, it's still a mighty impressive effort. Clooney plays Jacob Geismer, a war correspondent sent to Berlin to cover the 1945 Potsdam Conference. His driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), is a scam artist who uses the cover of his job to trade in black-market goods in the devastated city's restricted areas, and he uses promises of forged travel papers to hold sway over his Jewish lover, Lena (Cate Blanchett), who desperately wants to leave Germany. It turns out, however, that Geismer and Lena have a past, and a murder leads Geismer to the news that Lena's presumed-dead husband is sought by both American and Russian interests. The convoluted plot leads to revelations about the U.S. government's plans to recruit Nazi scientists for a missile program, and a deep, dark secret that fills the embittered Lena with self-loathing but it's a lot of brainwork, keeping all of the different military characters straight and putting together the puzzle, with a weak payoff that fizzles. Nonetheless, Soderbergh's elegant take on noir styling is spot-on, Thomas Newman's score is appropriately orchestral and melodramatic, and it's always a treat to watch Clooney and Blanchett. Overall, though, the picture's more a fascinating experiment than it is compelling entertainment. Warner Home Video's DVD release of The Good German offers a gorgeously sharp and clean, full-frame transfer (it was shot in the 1.33:1 ratio from Hollywood's golden age), and presenting director of photography Peter Andrews' high-contrast black-and-white cinematography with great care ("Peter Andrews" being a nom de guerre of this film's director). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English, French, or Spanish with optional subtitles) is equally good. There are no extras, which is a disappointment it would have been nice to hear Soderbergh talk about the process of making his unusual film. Keep-case.