The Good German

2007-07-08 17:22
I interrupt my Second Life and my search for a reproductive organ or two (Finweek, 10 May)* to bring you this important news. The end of the Second World War.

If you have to make precious time for an evening at the cinema, I recommend cancelling plans for Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Spiderman 3 or Shrek 3 and hold out for The Good German.

The Good German is based on the bestselling novel by Joseph Kanon about 1945 Berlin and opens on Friday. Like all good Second World War films (Schindler's List notwithstanding), it's in black and white.

It's directed by one of Hollywood's elite directors, Steven Soderbergh, who - thanks to commercial successes such as Ocean's 11 (Ocean's 13 arrives in June) - is free to take on special projects like The Good German.

It's filmed with lenses from classical Hollywood, makes liberal use of stock footage and follows the style of noir pictures from the Forties.

It looks different to anything else in cinemas today. However, the script - heavy on profanities and explicit violence and sex - would feel familiar to modern audiences.

The combination of Casablancaesque (the final scene looks as if it's cut straight from the classic film) style with Tarantinoish language is unsettling. I've always wondered why so many Second World War film directors permit themselves to detail suffering and atrocity but have nobody ever utter a "f**king hell" or "donderwetter".

George Clooney is war correspondent Jake Geismar, who arrives in Berlin to cover the Potsdam peace conference to carve up Germany and that would eventually lay the foundation for the Cold War.

Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire) is his designated driver, but despite his fresh-faced looks and small town charm he is also a black market wheeler-dealer for anything from Scotch to girls and - the central plot of the film - valuable German scientists.

Cate Blanchett, even more beautiful in monochrome than Technicolor, is Lena Brandt, forced to turn to prostitution for Occupation Marks to survive devastated Berlin. Brandt is Tully's "girlfriend" and also a former lover of Geismar - he ran a Berlin news bureau before the war.

Too much of a coincidence? Yes. Predictably, a murder soon follows and Geismar realises that Brandt's secrets about the war are of interest to much more powerful people than himself.

Large parts of The Good German is murder mystery, but comments on the nature of war, justice and revenge are neatly woven into the plot. Having read the book, I wondered how they'd fit in the long and complicated story.

However, the stripped down and tweaked version in the film works better (I've never been able to tie up all the loose ends in the novel). Still, I'd have preferred a bit more character study and a bit less moral argument and whodunit.

Blanchett's Brandt is a very attractive combination of strength and vulnerability (you can't help but fall for that smoky German accent). Clooney's Geismar is a disappointment - he comes across as detached and dull and his relationship with Brandt never catches fire.

Maguire performs best of all and his boyish but nasty Tully is, despite the relatively short screen time, the most convincing character.

The poster for The Good German asks: "If war is hell, what comes after?" Great material for a film, it appears.

- Frik Els

* Frik Els is a columnist for Finweek magazine

War is hell! But it sure looks good in black and white. So don't bother with Spiderman 3 - hold out for The Good German instead.

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.