Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 15, 2006 7:32 pm 
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The good copy

Soderbergh’s Good German is perfect in period black and white, not just made to look like a film of the Forties superficially but shot like one, with similar cameras and lighting and angles and processing, all of which is rather nice (this director’s learning experiences are instructive for us as well as him, and never a waste), but this emphasis on style overwhelms and distracts from the somewhat slackly paced story, which leans on period or pseudo-period noir, detective stories, themselves perhaps second hand if brilliant, like Polanski’s Chinatown, or kitsch classics, like Casablanca, which Good German’s last scene blatantly mimics. Obviously The Third Man was held in mind (an impossible model to equal), though this plot takes place in Berlin, not Vienna, at the time of the Potsdam Conference, with Truman, Churchill, and Stalin nearby—but as in The Third Man’s Vienna, everybody is in for a fix and covering up. It’s the old world style, and the Americans are there to rehabilitate the Nazis as well as execute some of them, and Truman’s line about our not being interested in business but in people’s freedom is heavily ironic in the context. Much is nice in this movie. But the comparison with The Third Man, with its simplicity and drive yet complex atmosphere can only, and constantly with one well familiar with the Carol Reed film, remind one again and again of the things this admirable effort almost inevitably lacks.

Let’s think about them. Though The Good German has rich decayed interiors, nests of stairways and rubble, dingy walls, the right clothes, its conventional Forties-style music is far less atmospheric than The Third Man’s wonderful zither theme, which gives the movie a driving, haunting sense of rhythm – if it didn’t also have a wonderful sense of refrain in the dialogue itself, with its eternal harping on the quest for the evil friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) by his naïve old friend Harry Martins (Joseph Cotton). Where was Lime? Who was Lime really? And then, finally, Lime himself, in the most famous cameo in cinema. What could equal that as a payoff? Cate Blanchett is moodily slinky for days as the German Lorelei, her voice is right, he face is right, even her German sounds right, but she cannot hold a candle to Alida Valli, because somehow when Blanchett is a wonderful facsimile, Valli was simply the real tihng; everyone in this movie is as much a facsimile as the imagery.

Tobby Maguire as the thieving, maneuvering driver Tully is rather woefully miscast. What the film needs to start out with is a Touch of Evil, to use the Wellesean phrase, and Maguire is meant to be the crookedest driver in the American military in Berlin, but he just seems eager and naïve. Joaquin Phoenix, with his menacing energy and off-kilter look, would have been much better as in fact he was in a quite similar Milo Minderbinder type role in the forgotten Buffalo Soldiers (2001, a bad year for an exposé of American iniquity abroad). George Clooney, as Captain Jake Geismer, the New Republic journalist in army uniform come to cover the Conference but really looking for his ex-girlfriend (Blanchett) from when he worked in pre-War Berlin, is not at his best here. He takes as much of a beating, like a private dick, as he did in Syriana, but too easily and quickly this time, and one wishes one could say the plot twists were clearer, or that their clarity was an improvement, over the murky but intensely interesting Syriana. One wishes he were effective, but his debonair can’t come into play; he’s just like a chess piece pushed back and forth. He’s a Bogart with insufficient attitude. He’s always standing or walking or bending over or falling down; he never gets to strike a pose.

We know Lena wants out, and when Tully dies trying to arrange it, Jake pursues the case, with more and more of Lena’s past unraveling – too easily – before him. The feeling that Berlin is dark and wicked and full of secrets is lost because it all spells itself out too fast.

We can revel in the look of this film, even in the music, but only for so long. It lacks a pulse. But as always, Soderbergh is on to the next project. Guess what? There’re four of them: Ocean’s 13, Life Interrupted, Guerrilla, and The Argentine. He'd have liked working in the old Forties studio system, he's said. If he didn't have to create his own filmmaking factory, would he have to be so prolific?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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