It's an odd thing when a contemporary filmmaker apes an outmoded era of cinema. When Quentin Tarantino - whose "Kill Bill" literally lifted chop-socky zooms and cuts for some of its throwbacks - does it, the pastiche is a means of appropriation, to capture the sense of film history as ever-evolving, and an acknowledgement of film's subsuming, regurgitating nature. Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German," filmed in high contrast black-and-white, shot on soundstages and using blue screens, is more like Todd Haynes's "Far from Heaven" in that it calls attention to its era's social and political realities, even as it filters them through the gauze of movie nostalgia. Haynes kept his Sirk homage from toppling over thanks to a stunning level of craft that left room both for guttural emotion and for Julianne Moore's devastating trapped-under-glass fragility. Soderbergh, who's always aimed for Haynes's level of experimental sophistication yet has time and again proven himself to be far better at conventional Hollywood narrative (his actors waxing indie and wanking off on each other in "Full Frontal" is far less appealing than the righteous liberal feel-goodism of "Erin Brockovich"), can't quite perform the same alchemy on his forties Hollywood postwar melodrama "The Good German," which remains hermetic and off-puttingly antiquated. The past (movie and otherwise) doesn't come to life here; the film remains haplessly sealed off, an object way out of reach.
Yet Soderbergh and screenwriter Paul Attanasio mean to evoke not just the look, feel, and sound of an earlier film era but also to bring to light the American government's complicity in protecting selected Nazi scientists in the lead up to the nuclear arm's race. Yet naturally, this is all convoluted within a postwar love story, set around the time of Churchill, Stalin, and Truman's arrival in Germany for the Potsdam Conference. Things get off to a forbidding start, with way too much time devoted to Tobey Maguire's screechy Corporal Tully, acting as chauffeur for George Clooney's war correspondent, Jake Geismer. Maguire, obviously cast for his aw-shucks apple pie veneer, which here thinly veils a streak of sadism, spittles and contorts his face to no avail: this "loose cannon" comes off more like a jerk in short-pants, a life-sized Chucky doll.
Tully's attraction to Cate Blanchett's dour mystery woman Lena Brandt, gets him in some hot water and instigates the narrative. Naturally, Clooney's prewar romance with Lena comes to light, and with the "Casablanca" set-up firmly in place, Clooney (just coasting here on his much ballyhooed "old-school charisma") becomes crusading investigative journalist, uncovering the truth behind the protection of Lena's possibly war-criminal husband.
From the beginning, Soderbergh's lines are already crossed: recalling everything from studio filmmaking (apparent from the opening, old-timey Warner Bros. logo to the lighting to the direct Michael Curtiz references) to newsreel footage to forties Italian neorealism (shots of urban rubble and bombed-out Berlin buildings lifted from Rossellini's "Germany Year Zero"), "The Good German" wants to be all at once - while even throwing in a little nudity and an onslaught of bad language (none of which contain the shock and verve of Dennis Quaid's single f-bomb in "Far from Heaven"). Considering the amount of visual referents at play here, and the lack of any sort of internal identity, "The Good German" ends up exemplifying Soderbergh's career-long penchant for jumping from one style to another: it's the perfect aesthetic for an anonymous filmmaker.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]