Game German ultimately undone by flawed source material

The Good German

on December 15, 2006 by Wade Major
If there's a key to Steven Soderbergh's success, it's that he, perhaps more than any other living director, has figured out precisely how to balance “playing it safe” with “taking risks,” simultaneously maintaining a high level of artistic integrity while enjoying the fruits of commercial success. Unfortunately, the risks don't always pan out, as is evident in the ambitious but sorely disappointing The Good German.

A self-consciously old-fashioned, black-and-white adaptation of Joseph Kanon's novel of romance and political intrigue amid the rubble and reemerging social structure of post-World War II Berlin, the picture begins with a good deal of kitschy promise. Meticulously constructed to look and sound like a film made from the late 1940s, it feels, at the outset, as though one might be in for a good deal of fun. But the movie never gets off the ground, bogged down by the excessive self-importance of Kanon's story and Soderbergh's weighty stylistic emulation.

Without giving too much away, the story centers primarily on a German woman — Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) — whose past and present relationships with two American servicemen (George Clooney and Tobey Maguire) create added complications when it's discovered that her now-missing German husband was, and may still be, a close associate of a Nazi rocket scientist actively sought by both American and Russian agents.

The historical importance of Berlin at this place in time, as a physical segue between World War II and the impending Cold War, ought to be sufficient to generate enough underlying tension to get the rest of the movie up to speed. But so much effort has been poured into fine-tuning the cinematography, sound, art direction and Thomas Newman's wall-to-wall, never-pause-to-breathe music that there's nothing left with which to energize the plot.

The real problem is that Soderbergh is looking to emulate the look, feel, suspense and intrigue of The Third Man with substantially less interesting material. One could possibly fault screenwriter Paul Attanasio for a too-faithful adaptation, but the fundamental flaw is that Kanon's story lacks a compelling center. In The Third Man, everyone was after Harvey Lime because he was the important man. In The Good German it's the important man's associate that everyone is after. And when he's unavailable, the important man's associate's wife. And, while Blanchett is an undeniably great actress with a strong screen presence, neither she nor Clooney provide anything close to the gravity of an Orson Welles.

Flaws notwithstanding, The Good German does have some noteworthy bright spots — Blanchett's near-flawless channeling of Marlene Dietrich and some very impressive, though occasionally gimmicky, technical contributions. Not enough, by any measure, to save the film's commercial prospects, but more than enough to make Soderbergh's next film something to look forward to. Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Paul Attanasio
Producers: Ben Cosgrove and Gregory Jacobs
Genre: Thriller
Rating: R for language, violence and some sexual content
Running time: 105 min.
Release date: December 15, 2006 ltd

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