From the outset -- slanting credits in white over grainy, shuddering stock-footage -- The Good German declares itself a product of a bygone age. And we're seeing an age gone by; Berlin, June, 1945, as broken people walk broken streets and an uneasy peace is built while fighting in the Pacific goes on. Army journalist Capt. Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is here to report on the Potsdam conference, as Stalin, Truman and Churchill meet to partition Germany. Before the war, Jake was in Berlin; it's a different city now, rubble run by guys like his motor pool driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire). Tully's having fun and making money, playing everyone in the city for a patsy aided by the air of chaos and doom: "The whole city spread its legs for you -- that whole eat, drink and be merry bullshit, seize the day -- It didn't make anyone smarter. ..."
Tully doesn't think of himself as such a bad guy; he's more than willing to help the girl he pimps get out of the country. Maguire's work -- coupled with Paul Attanasio's screen adaptation of Joseph Kanon's novel -- make it clear that Tully is one of those men who finds in war a chance to be someone -- or something -- that peace would not afford him. And, as fate would have it, Tully's new girlfriend is Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, eyes dark and voice husky), a German who used to work for Jake when he was in Berlin. Jake and Lena were also lovers; now, they're just two people who used to know each other.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, The Good German isn't a badly-made film; just the opposite. The problem is that it's so well-made -- camera work, vocal recording techniques, process shots and film stock are all carefully manipulated to make The Good German look as if it was made around the time it's set -- that every time I felt The Good German's story and characters pull me in, some incredibly movie-conscious movie moment would be so strongly crafted and cut that it would make me acutely aware I was watching a movie; it's hard to be enmeshed in a character's emotional journey when your brain is screaming out what a great, retro-styled insert Soderbergh (who also served as his own director of photography) just put into the scene.
Another problem with The Good German is the confusing clash of tones. Soderbergh wants to have made a rock-em, sock-em potboiler from the war era – something like Casablanca or The Third Man – but The Good German simmers when we want it to boil. Even the film's McGuffin – the thing everyone wants – is over-explained, over-discussed, over-played. (It turns out Tully's philosophies about Berlin as lootable resource are being conducted on the global stage, too.) And Clooney's character is confusingly written – we're supposed to believe he's an old Berlin hand, but that doesn't reconcile with how he moves and maneuvers in the shattered remains of the city he once knew. It may have been more convincing to have had Jake be more of an innocent abroad, like Joseph Cotten in The Third Man – but then, you wouldn't have the Casablanca-esque appeal of Jake and Lena's reunion. And there's not much appeal to that reunion, frankly; there's no heat or emotion in their scenes -- just a sadness conducted in stark black-and-white.
The Good German's story takes a micro-to-macro approach – in a city full of dead and dying people, in a nation that's vanished six million as a matter of public policy, Jake becomes involved with one murder and one disappearance. Jake is pitched to us not as a classic, Chandler-esque hard-boiled hero – full of fortitude and strong-jawed righteousness – but, rather, as a bit of an incompetent. And the whole film has that two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach, as something keeps The Good German from ever gathering steam and pressure; it's like the rarefied air of the artistic efforts on display is too thin and cold to maintain and trap that kind of heat and energy.
As for the acting? Well, Clooney's miscast – it's hard to imagine him as anything other than heroic, even more so in black-and-white – which just makes Jake's hapless flailing seem more and more incongruous. Maguire gets to ferment his apple-pie image into sour vinegar, and Blanchett's velvet-voiced Lena is a few octaves away from sounding like a SCTV caricature.
At one point, Jake's favorite bartender Danny (Tony Curran) says a brief little epigram that you'd think might be the heart and soul of The Good German: "Whenever you say to yourself, "That's the worst thing I've ever heard ...", stick around. That's Berlin." But later on – helping Jake hide Lena from all the people looking for her dead husband's notes – says something else that's just as telling: "I've got her stashed over a Kino (movie house) in the French sector – you know how they are about cinema." Well, Soderbergh's the same way – we know how he is about cinema, but this may be the first time he's let that love blind his natural storyteller's instincts. The Good German is so in love with a style gone by, a feel gone by, that it feels as stiff and chill as a museum piece, and no amount of star power or good intentions can bring it to life so that it might break out of a brittle shell of sterile, perfectly-manipulated retro gloss.