The Good German

2006, Movie, R, 108 mins


Foreign intrigue, a mysterious woman, shadows darker than the night — Stephen Soderbergh's adaptation of the acclaimed WWII-era novel by Joseph Kanon is a film-geek experiment in retro aesthetics, a black-and-white valentine to the briskly paced, no-nonsense films of Hollywood's studio era. Not only did director/cinematographer Soderbergh shoot Kanon's story of intrigue in war-shattered Berlin on studio sets and use the fixed focal-length lenses, old-fashioned process shots, punishing incandescent lights and the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of movies actually made in the 1940s, but he also pushed his cast to emulate the bold, externalized, crisply enunciated performances of golden-age actors like William Holden, Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman. As a stylized exercise, it's fascinating, but as a penetrating political thriller, it falls sadly short. Foreign correspondent Jake Geismar (George Clooney), based in Berlin before the war, returns in 1945 to find a wounded city carved into four zones, each controlled by one of the Allies — the United States, Britain, the USSR and France. Geismar is on assignment to cover the upcoming Potsdam Conference for The New Republic, but has a personal agenda as well — to find Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), the married mistress he left behind. Jake's guide to the new Berlin is motor-pool opportunist Tully (Tobey Maguire), a callow, childishly greedy hustler flourishing in a moral vacuum in which American dollars can buy anything and anyone. Jake's trade in illicit goods includes the German "girlfriend" he's stringing along with promises that he'll get her out of the country before the chaos settles and the border closes; what Jake doesn't know but later learns is that she's none other than the now-widowed Lena, so hardened and embittered by the war that he hardly recognizes her. Tully's subsequent murder leads Jake into a maze of lies, betrayal and corruption rooted in a postwar brain grab. Soviet and U.S. operatives are scrambling to stock their lab larders with Nazi rocket scientists: Expertise in long-range weaponry trumps war crimes. And one of the scientists both sides are looking for is Emil Brandt, Lena's supposedly dead husband. Soderbergh's influences are evident, and foremost among them are Billy Wilder's A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), Roberto Rossellini's GERMANY YEAR ZERO (1948), Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN (1949) and Michael Curtiz's CASABLANCA (1942), whose iconic rain-soaked conclusion he re-creates. But for all the profane language and sexual frankness, Soderbergh's film is no more cynical or world-weary than its inspirations, and in the end, it feels like a clever trick wrapped around a hollow center. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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