Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German is admittedly quite an on the nose homage to 1940s noir and other films of that era. The opening scene could quite literally be torn out of Carol Reed’s The Third Man as could several scenes following after it. Regardless of all the borrowing, I still feel that Soderbergh’s keen eye and knack for involving storytelling are on full display here. The intricate narrative takes place in post-war Germany when everyone was concocting vicious plots to escape the fallout of Hitler’s reign. George Clooney plays the clueless American who falls into the schemes of various government manipulators and willingly into the arms of a German femme fatale (Cate Blanchett). The murky details involve the bomb project, a missing man, and a letch of a motor pool driver (Tobey Maguire), but really the film is an exercise in stylistic approximation. Soderbergh’s frames created such a shadowy beauty that it’s hard to resist falling in love with his unconventional choice of style. He also creates fascinatingly textured frames, getting the most meaning possible out of seemingly simple situations. One of my favorite scenes this year is “the parade scene” near the film’s end. It’s such a layered and playful comment on politics at the time that it deserves its own round of enthusiastic applause.
Clooney always makes for a likable screen presence and his chemistry with Soderbergh is quite obvious. They’ve made many films together and have developed what feels like an effortless actor-director relationship. Clooney also has great on-screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett who gives the most mannered performance of the film. Though what she’s doing has all the makings of a hammy caricature, she gives such specificity and such a feeling of life to the role that you believe her every step of the way.
Anyone wanting to rant about how people should be seeing films of the 1940s instead of a film that looks like a film from the 1940s can feel free to do so. However, I think there’s something more to this film than mimicry. It feels stale for only moments before taking on its own life as an exciting and complex political thriller. The film truly has fresh ideas and visual innovations of its own in addition to capturing a classic look and feel. There are so many contemporary thrillers that lift multiple ideas from 1940s noir. At least this one has the nerve to be upfront about its inspirations.