It's a fairly rare and always interesting phenomenon when a filmmaker releases two films in the same year. John Ford made three in 1939, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk. Alfred Hitchcock released two in 1941, the thriller Suspicion and the romantic comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Howard Hawks had a one-two punch in 1952 with his Western adventure The Big Sky and a screwball comedy Monkey Business. And in 2002, director Phillip Noyce impressed critics everywhere with two politically-tinged dramas, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American. But in these and other cases, one can always see the connection, if nothing else a particular sensibility or personality in each work.
I'm hard pressed to think of two more different films than Steven Soderbergh's Bubble and The Good German, released at the far opposite ends of 2006. The shot-on-video Bubble seemed to push the edges of the future of cinema with its astonishing deep-focus cinematography, its impressive working-class settings and its captivating characters (played by amateur actors). Additionally, the film tried a new stunt, being almost simultaneously released in theaters and on DVD. Whereas The Good German gets its inspiration entirely from the past, presented in luminous black-and-white film, set in post-World War II Berlin and featuring good old-fashioned movie stars.
Based on a novel by Joseph Kanon and penned by film critic-turned-screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco), the film begins as an American military journalist Capt. Jacob 'Jake' Geismer (George Clooney) returns to his old stomping grounds, Berlin, to cover the post-war talks, ceremonies and events. That's not much of a story, he knows, and his real reason to return is to track down his former mistress, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). The new wrinkle is that Jake's driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire) -- who at first seems to be a clean-cut, aw-shucks American -- has learned the ins and outs of Berlin and all the benefits to be gained during this time of transition. He has also made Lena's acquaintance and has claimed her as his own lover, showing an unhinged violent side in the process.
Eventually, some thugs begin hunting for someone called Emil Brandt, and they're willing to beat people up and trash apartments for any related information. Someone winds up murdered, and Jake is determined to find out what happened. He behaves more like Mike Hammer than a journalist, barging into offices and residences and demanding information, assaulting people with the facts he already knows. It doesn't help that Lena keeps lying (or withholding information); he wants to trust her, wants her back in his life, but doesn't know where she's coming from anymore.
Soderbergh deliberately wishes to invoke Casablanca (1942) and The Third Man (1949) at least, with subtler nods to Open City (1945) and other postwar classics that capture the ruin and desperation of many European cities. (Even the film's poster is designed to mimic Casablanca.) But the problem is that these references are only technicalities to him. When Scorsese or Tarantino or Godard reference an earlier film, they do so out of a deep-rooted passion, and that passion comes through in their work. For Soderbergh, it's more calculated, as if it were a business decision.
Moreover, he doesn't quite understand the mechanics of this earlier brand of storytelling. He uses newsreel clips to establish Berlin as a shelled-out husk of its former self, but these clips have little to do with our characters and their romance/murder story. Likewise, Soderbergh doesn't understand that the Emil Brandt in his story is merely a McGuffin, like the "letters of transit" in Casablanca, which essentially means that it doesn't really matter who he is or what he's done, as long as we understand that everybody's after him. But The Good German goes ahead and explains just who Emil is and what he's done and why everyone wants him. And certainly his appearance doesn't have nearly the pizzazz of Harry Lime's -- as played by Orson Welles -- in The Third Man.
The Good German is definitely a mechanical movie, pushing forth in a way it believes appropriate rather than finding a natural flow. And in this, the actors get lost. Casablanca was populated by more than just Rick and Ilsa; there were a whole band of peculiar misfits, bartenders, grifters, piano players, scoundrels, liars, gamblers, thieves, etc. That, plus the great roster of character actors on board gave that movie its flavor. Soderbergh manages a small part for Beau Bridges, but otherwise, few characters from The Good German stand out.Frankly, Soderbergh is a filmmaker celebrated for feeling his way around, and for forcing audiences to consider new ideas. He can tackle a pair of issue movies, a Russian novel, a sequel to a remake, a black-and-white biopic of Kafka or an Elmore Leonard thriller without blinking, and each film gets its own groundbreaking style. But these films feel like a man blazing a trail toward the future, not returning to cinema's glorious past. The Good German is a misstep, and now that Soderbergh has stopped to look back over his shoulder, perhaps he'll move on and leave the past behind for good.