Judge Daniel MacDonald thinks this German is great!
If war is hell, then what comes after?
Never one to rest on his ample cinematic laurels, director Steven Soderbergh (The Limey) has created a black-and-white homage to 1940s filmmaking. Sounds like an interesting experiment, but does it work as entertainment?
Facts of the Case
July 1945: military journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney, Syriana) arrives in war-torn Berlin. He's just after a story, but gets more than he bargained for when he runs into mysterious old flame Lena (Cate Blanchette Notes on a Scandal), a married woman he once loved but had long since tried to forget. Before Jake gets in so much as a "How've you been," he's embroiled in a murder investigation involving Lena's new lover Tully (Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man 2). Intrigue abounds as Geismer digs for the truth, uncovering a horrible Nazi operation and trying to help Lena escape from Germany in the process.
The Good German could have easily been a gimmicky, and ultimately forgettable, distraction, a self-indulgent exercise with little real depth. And honestly I was worried that's what it would end up being. Fortunately, and on the contrary, it's a thoroughly engaging, engrossing work executed with integrity, a substantive entry in the filmography of one of our most versatile directors.
The picture is a nearly flawless recreation of 40s cinema, notably influenced by Casablanca (it was reported that copies of the Bogie-Bergman flick were handed out at early press screenings). The lighting, music, shot composition, acting style, and editing all feel straight out of the era. But rather than simply an homage or an exercise, this plays like a picture that could have actually been made in the mid-1940s—and a good one too. It's got as complex and relevant a storyline as the best of the era, a really great post-war mystery that'll keep you wondering the whos and whys, and stars marquee actors, some of whom are in comfortably familiar roles (like Clooney) while others are stretching their range (e.g. Maguire).
Seemingly obvious exceptions to the mandate are the profanity—Tully has an especially foul mouth—the sex, and the violence. All are depicted in a manner more in line with modern conventions (that is, these elements actually are depicted), which is somewhat jarring at the outset. On reflection, though, pictures of this era, especially films noir (a genre also casting a shadow, if you will, over The Good German), were trying their darndest to push the acceptable limits of the Hays Code that determined what was and was not acceptable in filmed entertainment. And so The Good German successfully imagines what a film might look like were it made today but cinematic techniques had not progressed past 1949.
It's a brazen concept, and a testament to Soderbergh's abilities to both envision such a picture and to lead the cast and crew toward success in achieving that vision. Here is a crew firing on all cylinders, with what one can only imagine to be a single-minded goal of artistic achievement, as I highly doubt anyone could have held out much hope for a box office success.
Once again Soderbergh handles editing and cinematography duties himself, under the pseudonyms Mary Ann Bernard and Peter Andrews respectively, and his chops in each seem to improve from picture to picture. The lighting in particular is one of the great treats of The Good German, the gorgeous black-and-white film put through its paces in a series of inventive low- and high-key schemes.
Also noteworthy are the Oscar-nominated score by frequently-Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman (American Beauty), and the just-complex-enough screenplay by Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco). I was surprised to learn that regular Soderbergh collaborator, and personal favorite, David Holmes (Out of Sight) composed a complete score that was rejected in favor of Newman's effort, but it's undeniable that the omnipresent strings go a long way toward maintaining the picture's tone and pacing. This is a beautiful piece of music in line with the period. And Attanasio's script, while appropriately dialogue-heavy, is expertly plotted to keep the viewer wondering what will be revealed next; the mystery is intelligent and gripping.
George Clooney, as he also showed in Good Night, and Good Luck., was born to be photographed in black and white, and oozes old-Hollywood cool in every scene. Cate Blanchette seems totally at ease with the German accent, and has no problems dropping her usual naturalistic delivery for a more theatrical style. Also of note is Leland Orser (SE7EN), who, in his medium-sized role, manages not to hyperventilate.
The transfer is immaculate, with no noticeable edge enhancement, false contouring, or artifacting. The image is nearly three dimensional, with deep focus compositions sharp and clean. The only hint of grain or flaws is in the stock footage that occasionally is used to establish location or setting, but this is minor and not distracting. In keeping with period conventions, this is a 1.33:1 full frame transfer; although projected theatrically at 1.66:1, I trust this is the director's preferred framing. While the film appears in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio, Soderbergh uses the same aural strategy as he employed in Traffic: that is, all dialogue and sound effects are confined to the center channel, with the other speakers only active with the music. It works well to capture the monaural sound of the period yet not seem too constrained, and dialogue is crisp and clear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It takes a few minutes to get into The Good German, as you just get accustomed to the 40s flourishes when Maguire starts swearing, then you're really thrown for a loop. But hang in there, it's worth it.
The way the audio was recorded—apparently using only boom microphones rather than radio lapel mics—led to lots of ancillary noise like footsteps, clothing rustles, and the like being recorded with the dialogue. This can be rather distracting until you acclimatize to it.
Speaking of Maguire, he's the one element that doesn't quite sell here. Perhaps it's his youthful looks when compared to his castmates, and perhaps it's the darkness of the role compared with his usual fare, but he didn't always feel right.
And I'm truly disappointed by the complete lack of special features—I would have loved to see the research that went into both the story of the picture and the means by which it was filmed. What was the impetus for the picture? How far was the period detail taken? Was this easier or more difficult than shooting the traditional way? Some answers, whether by a documentary or audio commentary, would have been appreciated.
The Good German is a real achievement, a film that surpasses its superficial trappings to tell a powerful story in a different way. I applaud both the intention and the execution, and highly recommend this picture.
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