A fitting tribute to the melancholy war/romance movies of the 1940s, The Good German also develops its own enthralling story while bravely foregoing nearly every modern convention of filmmaking.
Director Steven Soderbergh so desperately wanted to capture the classic era of Hollywood evoked by films like Casablanca that he stripped the production down as much as possible. Wireless microphones, commonly used today in films to allow the actors to speak more naturally, were scrapped in favor of the audio recording principles of the day, namely one large overhead boom microphone that everyone in a scene would have to use. The lighting techniques are anything but modern, and Soderbergh, also serving as the film's cinematographer, used only fixed focal length lenses instead of contemporary zoom lenses. Also like a film from the mid-1940s, The Good German was shot on sets and studio back lots, not on location.
But regardless of the gimmicks that might serve as a film’s calling card, the question always is, “Does the story work?” And in the case of The Good German, the answer is yes. Although Soderbergh allowed anachronisms like nudity and profanity that wouldn’t be considered appropriate for a film released 60 years ago, the nuts and bolts of the plot could just as easily describe events happening 30 years ago in the aftermath of Vietnam, or even today in Iraq.
Military journalist Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) arrives in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, which carved up the defeated Nazi Germany in the summer of 1945, and instantly, old memories come rushing back for the reporter, who had spent some time there during the war. His driver, a foulmouthed soldier named Tully (Tobey Maguire) has his hands in lots of pockets, selling American supplies and German artifacts to the Soviets.
In turns out, though, that Tully may also be in the business of supplying nuclear scientists to the Russians, and with an atomic bomb a couple months away from debuting in Japan, it’s something the American government wants to stop. Tully and Geismer aren’t cut from the same cloth, but they do have one thing in common: Lena (Cate Blanchett).
A smart, ambitious, beautiful young woman a few years earlier, Lena is now a slightly uncommon prostitute. Geismer knew her back when; Tully frequents her now. Tully’s dangerous affairs find someone waking up on the wrong side of death’s ledger one day, a body washing ashore at Schloss Cecilienhof, where the Potsdam Conference is being held. Whose jurisdiction will lead the investigation? Geismer doesn’t care, and he undertakes his own investigation to find the culprit and, hopefully, find Lena once again.
If not for Tobey Maguire’s strained portrayal, The Good German would boast a near-flawless ensemble. Both Clooney and Blanchett make their work look so easy. Clooney is a seamless leading man and Blanchett is an uncanny chameleon, successfully navigating her third straight strong performance of the season (Babel and Notes on a Scandal). Soderbergh’s technical precision means there’s also something beyond the performers to examine more closely in each scene, and more than enough reason to examine the film itself.