Film, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #91: The Good German

February 20, 2010

I rented The Good German (2006) a couple years ago and it didn’t make a great impression on me at the time, so it was with some trepidation that I rewatched it for this project.  I liked it much better this time around, but I can also see why it didn’t entirely win me over at first.

It’s Berlin, in 1945, and the victorious Allied powers are gathering for the Potsdam Conference to determine Germany’s fate in the wake of World War II.  Military reporter Jake Geisman (George Clooney), on hand to cover the conference, finds himself “coincidentally” assigned a seedy motor pool aide named Tully (a distractingly miscast Tobey Maguire).  Tully just happens to have a German girlfriend named Lena (Cate Blanchett), a figure from Geisman’s past.  Within a few hours of arriving, Geisman’s wallet is stolen, and before he knows it he finds himself embroiled in a murder, a manhunt, and the complexities of post-war power politics.  Everyone seems to be searching for a man named Emil Brandt — American intelligence agents, the Russian military, the U.S. war crimes commission.  Geisman, motivated by his love for Lena and a desire for justice, allows himself to get caught up in the search, but who is Brandt, and why is everybody after him?

The Good German does a lot of things you want a good spy film to do, and the mystery here — while requiring some early patience — is quite compelling, in a conflict that comes down to a battle between those who want to see justice done, and those willing to compromise ethics in the name of political and military expediency.  The bomb-ravaged Berlin setting is beautifully and convincingly realized.  Clooney is in fine form, and Blanchett pulls off a convincingly exotic Marlene Dietrich-like leading lady.

But the film is hampered, I think, by its chief claim to fame; in order to recapture the feel of the old spy-noir films of yesteryear, director Steven Soderbergh (who is always interesting) limited himself to using the film-making technology of the 1940s era he was trying to recapture.  While this makes for an intriguing experiment, it’s also a bit distracting; the film is a little too self-conscious about its technique.  In a few places, Soderbergh forces visual comparisons to the films I suspect he’s paying homage to — chiefly The Third Man and Casablanca, classics that are awfully difficult to compete against.  The concept might have worked, but the film doesn’t entirely commit to its mission. Blanchett and Clooney do well recapturing the acting styles of the era, but other members of the cast don’t…and while the music is effectively retro, the language and violence feel too contemporary.  In the end, I suspect I would have enjoyed it more had it been entirely modern or entirely classic — as is, it’s got a foot in both camps, and the film-making seams are showing a bit much.  I suspect this is the main reason I didn’t care for the film the first time I saw it.

Putting that criticism aside, though, there’s a good, involving espionage yarn on display in The Good German, and if you can get past the distraction of the visual look, it’s definitely attractively shot and distinctive.  With reservations, perhaps, but recommended.

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