In “Casablanca,” did Ilsa like it from behind? In “The Third Man,” what corny-porny pictures did Holly Martins masturbate to? When would Bogart have called another man a “cunt” or a “cocksucker”? Could the director of “Schizopolis” and “Full Frontal” have fit into the “genius of the system” that enabled the careers of directors like Michael Curtiz?
Those are questions that rattle around in the head while watching Steven Soderbergh’s latest adroit atomization of form (if not function), “The Good German” (adapted by Paul Attanasio from Joseph Kanon’s 2003 novel). The restless technician limits himself in this black-and-white picture to the equipment available to the filmmakers of the era in which the movie is set: a 1.66 to 1 screen ratio; using only overhead boom mikes; the kind of prime, non-zoom lenses and battened-down camera positions available to someone like, say, Carol Reed with “The Third Man” (1949) (at least without the canted angles) or Billy Wilder with “A Foreign Affair” (1948). Some of the use of smoke and light, especially against night backdrops, is hauntingly memorable.
The Byzantine plot throws New Republic journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) into the web of former lover Ilsa (Cate Blanchett channeling Marlene Dietrich) and her current lover-pimp, sewer-mouthed Tulley (Tobey Maguire enjoying a chance to be an over-the-top shit-heel), while dark secrets about war crimes, rocket science and the murder of Jews pile up. (The coldly ironic ending is a beauty in more ways than one.)
A beautiful stunt made with Soderbergh’s customary stellar craft (with the close collaboration of his nom-de-pseuds, editor “Mary Ann Bernard” and cinematographer “Peter Andrews”), the result, despite game performances in a declarative 1940s style by Clooney, Blanchett and Maguire, remains chilly. There’s anachronism in both directions, technically backward-looking but studded with a crudeness of language where “fucking fuck” is a frequent refrain.
There are multiple (unreliable) narrators; everyone’s delivery is declarative, declamatory, definitive; the acting style is led by Clooney’s chin-wagging and head-wobbling; there are shots held long after one character leaves the room and the other contemplates the finished scene; plucky harp strings in Thomas Newman’s score suggestive of the ubiquitous zither in “The Third Man.” The Newman clan, including cousin Randy, comes from a long line of Hollywood composers; Thomas does a fine job with other, more sweeping passages in the idioms of father Alfred, brother David and uncle Lionel.
Still, a pastiche that conflates greats like “Casablanca” and “The Third Man” as well as a protagonist-patsy who galumphs through most of the movie with a crude bandage on a sliced ear (like Jack Nicholson’s nose-plaster in “Chinatown”) is to be preferred over any of the extremely profitable but smug “Oceans” endeavors (there’s a third in the works) the success of which allow Soderbergh’s workaholic pace and investigational endeavors. (And like most of his smaller films, the artistic virtues of “German” will be trumpeted less in its coverage than its chilly commercial chances.)
Despite the convolutions, there’s a sorrowful extra layer of latter-day resonance, that the endless grifting in the postwar reconstruction of the four sectors of Berlin, patterned after the terrible crimes in “The Third Man,” resounds clear as a bell to the increasingly horrific stories of contemporary war profiteering in post-occupation Iraq. Divided Berlin; divided Baghdad. A general says “We’re doing a hell of a job in Berlin,” an equally frightening parallel to today’s doings, and Clooney’s character is an avant-le-lettre embedded journo, with a U. S. War Correspondent patch on an Army-issue suit, plus a general says, covering up the death of a soldier, “his family doesn’t need to know anything more than that he crashed his jeep trying to avoid a bunny rabbit.”
Mouthfuls of dialogue come fast and furious: “The whole city spread its legs for you, all that eat drink and be merry bullshit, seize the day, it sure don’t make anyone smarter and the best thing of it was no one got hurt”; “money allows you to be who you truly are”; “like you should be fucking fucking General Eisenhower, countess roundheels?”; you’re out there selling Love you don’t have. He’s not a bad sort, just a bit of a cunt”; Lena was raped by the Russians, you’ll get yourself a good dose.” If you’re a moviegoer who can walk out humming the scenery, “The Good German” is a good dose as well.
“The Good German” opens Friday.