For the last month, I’ve been wanting to see Steven Soderbergh’s post-WWII neo-noir “The Good German” a second time. For a while, my neighborhood theater in Brooklyn advertised the film on its marquee as coming soon. But it never arrived, summarily replaced by the Oscar contenders of the moment. Internet searches showed that the film would expand on Jan. 19, a date that saw the film grow to a paltry 66 theaters around the country. And as of last weekend, it has vanished completely from the New York area.
Sure, the film isn’t Soderbergh’s best, but with an intriguing aesthetic experiment at its core, a sumptuously nasty performance by Tobey Maguire, an Oscar-nominated Max-Steiner-esque score, and a bravura climactic sequence set in a crowded street that’s equal parts “Third Man” and “Breathless,” the film should have been given a better chance.
At the Berlin Film Festival, where “The Good German” premiered on Friday, Soderbergh admited that the film was a “strange hybrid,” according to reports. “Its approach to the narrative in terms of the momentum is very American; its approach to its characters and its approach to morality is much more European,” he said.
An unsettling combination, perhaps, but one not devoid of merit. As someone who is invested somewhat in Soderbergh’s career (I edited this book of interviews), I can’t help but think he got a raw deal — and most U.S. critics and audiences have missed the point of the film’s mission. Soderbergh isn’t out to recreate “Casablanca”; he’s out to make its evil twin — a corrosive, icy version of “A Foreign Affair” with Cate Blanchett’s Marlene Dietrich having sunk that much deeper into the gutter.
Who killed the film? Here are the culprits:
1. Manohla Dargis, Anthony Lane, etc. — Most critics lambasted the film, unfairly and viciously, I might add. The New Yorker’s Lane seemed personally affronted by the fact that the movie wasn’t “Germany Year Zero,” but the comparison is entirely unfair. The New York Times’ Dargis, likewise, wanted to see a magical Hollywood ode, and when the film wasn’t what she was expecting, she savaged it. When Salon.com ‘s Stephanie Zacharek criticizes the movie, saying it “feels like a hit to the stomach,” that’s the point, isn’t it?
2. Warner Bros. — With George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire and a slick ad campaign, audiences would have come out to the film, no matter what critics said. My mom in Orange County wanted to see it, but it never reached her. In the dead-end weeks of January, there was plenty of space to open “Good German” wider, but with mediocre Oscar-contenders trying to stake their claim, the WB backed down, afraid to take a risk on a film that wasn’t a slam dunk.
3. “The Good Shepherd” — I haven’t seen “Good Shepherd,” so I can’t say if it’s a better or worse film, though most reviews say it’s okay, at best. But after the critics and studios left “Good German” for dead, of course, the other “Good” movie was going to take the pole position in theaters.
4. You — Why didn’t you folks back your man, Soderbergh, one of the more defiant independent-minded renegades working inside the Hollywood system? If auteurism isn’t dead, the failure of Soderbergh’s audience to see what he was trying to do in “The Good German” shows it’s definitely on life support. I guess there’s always “Ocean’s 13″….