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December 7, 2006

The Good German

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Steven Soderbergh's approach to making The Good German has gone past the point of trivia and is fast becoming it's marketing hook. As Dave Kehr reported in the New York Times a few weeks ago, the picture is an experiment in old-fashioned filmmaking; specifically, an appropriation of the techniques used by backlot directors in the 30s and 40s, with Michael Curtiz in particular serving as Soderbergh's stylistic muse. His flattery of the Casablanca director extends from the use of similar angles, lenses and lighting all the way to the film's poster. Which, I think, is a problem; wouldn't it be better to see if audiences fall for the film, rather than predispose them to its self-imposed limitations, which are in themselves limited?

The Good German starts off waving its intentions proudly for all to see, with its shaky titles optically imposed on newsreel footage of post-war Berlin and rear-projection driving sequences and a Thomas Newman's score that beautifully apes Max Steiner's looming grandiloquence. It is so completely and resolutely antiquated that it's a bit of a shock when, not too far into the film, a fairly modern dose of sex and language and violence deflate the illusion. Soderbergh, it seems, has little interest in the film beyond the technical challenge he's set for himself. After all, the censors of the 30s and 40s as much a limitation as the bulky cameras and slow film stocks; the reason filmmakers like Curtiz are considered great is because they were able to work around these shortcomings. Soderbergh, in comparison, comes across as lazy. Once it's clear that his storytelling is not in total concert with his form, all those optical tricks and period imperfections seem rather cheap, and the film becomes as passionless as the absent chemistry between George Clooney and Cate Blanchett on which the entire plot is meant to hinge (and while Clooney may, in the retro sense, be the next best thing to Cary Grant, he ain't no Bogey). Especially disappointing to this fan of handpainted mattes was production designer Phillip Messina's note in Kehr's article that there was some digital extensions to make the backlots look more like the bombed-out Berlin.

As a thriller, The Good German is intermittently intriguing, but at this point who's going to see it for the story? I love the fact that Soderbergh keeps experimenting, and I almost always love the results; but just as much as it hurts to see audiences reject a risky film, so too is it disappointing to see a risky film only go halfway. Ultimately, it reminded me of another experiment in retrofitted filmmaking - one that, in a far more limited and clinical sense, was much more successful. I'm talking about Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot recreation of Psycho, which as a film was poor (how do you screw up a shot-by-shot remake?) but as a text on the essence of a film's construction was pretty fascinating. I think too many people (including the film's producers) regarded it as a de facto remake of a classic, when in fact it was an academic exploration of what makes movies work, made on the studios' dime.

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But back to World War II films. Only slightly less anachronistic is Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, which I have a feeling will be regarded as greater than it is because it's entirely in Japanese (that the extremely harrowing seppuku sequence will leave most audiences a whimpering, malleable mess certainly won't hurt its reception, either). I wish making an American film in a foreign language wasn't such a brave thing to do, but given the circumstances, Eastwood deserves to be commended. In fact, that the film was made in the first place is the one truly important thing about it; it's indicative of the compassion that makes him such an excellent filmmaker, and which allows him to spin a rushed, rushing and merely decent script (it's not hard to humanize the so-called enemy when they love America as much as Ken Watanabe's general does) into something that every now and then achieves something loftier than mere sympathy.

Posted by David Lowery at December 7, 2006 6:37 PM