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The Good Shepherd briefly touches down in the charnel house that was 1945 Berlin, where Edward Wilson vets Nazis seeking asylum. If he and The Good German’s Jake Geismer were characters in the same movie, they would have to meet, at least briefly. For Jake is a journalist—mulling a New Republic think piece, which explains why he’s never on deadline—who arrives in a black-and-white Berlin as the Potsdam Conference looms, and quickly stumbles upon the American and Soviet manhunts for Nazi rocket and bomb scientists. Neither side intends to punish the Germans who rained destruction on Britain and supervised death-camp missile factories, of course. What they want is to recruit them.
This sort of cynicism is initially beyond the comprehension of Jake (George Clooney), a uniformed outsider—he wears a military correspondent insignia on his shoulder—whose principal interest in postwar Berlin is personal. He was AP bureau chief in the city before the war and had an affair with a married stringer, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Jake has returned in hopes of rescuing Lena but finds she has little interest in his help. She’s now immersed in intrigue and possibly corrupted beyond redemption. (Her revelation, when it finally arrives, would be horrible, if only it were convincing.) To survive postwar deprivation, Lena has become a prostitute; her pimp is a jejune but nasty American, Tully (Tobey Maguire), who’s assigned to be Jake’s driver. Berlin’s American Sector is a small town, and it takes a village to show Jake he’s a sucker.
A noble sucker, of course. Shortly after he arrives, Jake points out to a porcine congressman who’s complaining about the Soviets that those about-to-be-former allies “took most of the bullets.’’ (This is the sort of sentiment that got people blacklisted a few years later, in the era visited by Clooney’s previous black-and-white venture, Good Night, and Good Luck.). Even as Lena spurns him, and various baddies in various sorts of uniforms pummel him, Jake continues to try to extricate his ex-flame from Berlin. That’s complicated by her link to husband Emil, a rocket scientist who reportedly is dead, but may not be. And if the matter of Emil can be settled, there’s still Lena’s status as a possible war criminal. “That’s Berlin,” shrugs the film’s philosophical barkeep. “There’s always something worse.”
If that line—and Jake’s name, and his repeated beatings, and so on—recall Chinatown, that movie is hardly the only precursor on director Steven Soderbergh’s mind. When not inserting Soviet documentary footage, Soderbergh emulates a variety of American war and noir classics and shoots (under the alias Peter Andrews) in a harsh, square-formatted style that evokes the shadowy look of ’20s German expressionism and World War II newsreels rather than the creamier grays of ’40s Hollywood. The Good German opens with documentary images of the ruined city and closes with a scene refashioned from Casablanca. While Clooney sticks close to his usual easygoing, self-amused persona, Blanchett channels aspects of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo (although her movements sometimes recall her impersonation of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator).
Adapted from Joseph Kanon’s novel by former Washington Post film critic and Quiz Show writer Paul Attanasio, the script has its shares of jokes, many of them with serious undercurrents. As in Lars von Trier’s postwar Zentropa, most of the Americans are of German descent; in addition to Geismer, there’s a Muller and a Breimer. The sly political context implicates everyone, but that means the Yanks are the principal target. We already knew that Nazis and Commies are no good.
Of contemporary American directors who sometimes make box-office hits, Soderbergh is the most experimental. Yet “experimental” may be too elevated a term—he’s really more of a dabbler, toying with Tarkovksy (Solaris), Ken Loach (The Limey), and digital video (Bubble) while furthering the middling directorial careers of such buddies as Clooney. The Good German is Soderbergh’s latest lark, a self-conscious exercise that implicitly rejects the seriousness its milieu and high-contrast cinematography promise. The film has its subversive implications, but they’re undercut by homages and in-jokes. If The Good German intermittently remembers to be a moral tale, mainly it’s a dilettante’s skillful but idle pastiche.