The Good German works better for those who think meta. On one level, Steven Soderbergh’s latest, elegant movie-loving project is a period-piece drama set in Berlin at the end of World War II, where U.S. war correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney) gets embroiled all over again with an old German flame who still sets men on fire. Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) used to be a soft girl until the war made her hard (when Jake first sees her again, she has taken up with Tobey Maguire as a conscience-free black marketer). Jake used to be a passionate guy until the war made him bitter. Secrets are involved, and double-dealings, and a rich supporting cast, including Beau Bridges as a bushy American colonel, Ravil Isyanov as a slippery Russian general, and Deadwood’s Robin Weigert as Lena’s lusty roommate, stealing every scene she’s in, sometimes just by chewing a sandwich. The air is perfumed with the bouquet of grand old 1940s Warner Bros. noir pics colored in black and white and wartime shadows.
But it turns out those scents and shadows are what’s best in The Good German, while the story itself (the script is by Paul Attanasio, from the 2001 novel by Joseph Kanon) fades to an unmemorable gray, bleached of relevance. On the meta level, Soderbergh has re-created not only the kind of story told in the 1940s, but the kind of technical production Hollywood gloried in more than half a century ago, too. And so the movie is best received as an erudite thesis on how function sometimes follows form and not the other way around — how, for instance, the sound-and-picture limitations of the time (lenses and microphones, lighting and master shots) forced performances to project out rather than allow them to turn inward in today’s prevailing style.
The good student will filter Attanasio’s intentionally ”modern”-sounding dialogue through the actors’ ”old-fashioned” declarations and may experience a thrill of time-and-again cinematic dislocation. The leisure-time viewer will say, ”Hey, this is sort of like Casablanca, so why play it again?”