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Movie Review: The Good German

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Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006) is a film noir set in Berlin during the months immediately following the surrender in 1945. The film mainly occurs in July and August. Soderbergh makes excellent use of documentary footage from Berlin in those months. The setting is one of complete devastation, of chaos and disorder. The Potsdam Conference is about to occur, and uncertainty about how Germany will be reorganized, and about how many Germans will be indicted for war crimes, is a constant subtext.

Other themes in the film have to do with the tensions that characterized international relations for the latter half of the twentieth century, especially the impending cold war and nuclear competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. A basic question, investigated from numerous vantage points, is one of responsibility: who is responsible, who must bear blame? — for the War, for the atrocities against the Jews and other groups, for the nuclear threat, for a developing schism between East and West, for a general breakdown in fundamental human decency. The film’s black and white cinematography creates continuity between the documentary footage and the fictional portions of the film — it’s difficult to distinguish them.

The Good German is about the efforts of American and Soviet officials to locate a missing man named Emil Brandt. He was supposedly the secretary of a German rocket scientist whom both the Americans and Soviets want to enlist to build weapons for them. In fact, the Americans already have him in secret custody. We are told that he wants his secretary to accompany him to America, and that for this reasons the Americans want to find him. Although Brandt was reported to have died in the war, he may still be alive. And there may be other reasons why the Americans want him. The film centers on efforts to locate Brandt, and on the characters involved in the search. Like many films in this genre, the motivations and the credibility of characters constantly shift throughout the film.

With Tobey Maguire, George Clooney, Beau Bridges, and Cate Blanchett among the leading cast members, The Good German offers good acting. Maguire does present difficulties. Sincerity and good old American boyishness are basic traits of the Maguire persona. In this film he plays a driver, Patrick Tully, who is exploiting the chaotic post-war situation to his own benefit. He makes clear that money is all that matters to him — the measure of all things. He sells counterfeit goods to the highest bidder and attempts to sell to the Russians the husband of the woman who is his mistress. She is Lena (Blanchett), the wife of Emil Brandt. Tully is nothing more than a gangster who abuses Lena and viciously beats up Clooney, whom he serves as a driver. Yet at a moment’s notice he can transform into the midwestern American boy-soldier, innocent, wide-eyed, and eager to get back to his family and his girl. The fact that he doesn’t know where Brandt is doesn’t matter to Tully. It’s difficult to divorce the characters Maguire usually plays from this one. With his boyish high-pitched voice, sometimes his character doesn’t seem real; at other times he seems all the more sordid and evil.

When Tully’s body washes up on the bank of a river, Clooney investigates the murder. He’s a military reporter, Jake Geismar, who had an affair with Lena before the war and who now wants to help her, or he wants to restart the affair, or he has some other reason — his motives are not entirely clear, but he does come to realize that the Americans assigned Tully to be his driver because they knew of his affair with Lena and wanted Geismar to help them find her husband. Clooney basically plays the same character in every movie he is in, but his persona — that of the manly, easygoing, sometimes brash American — serves him well.

There is a caustic edge to his character here. He’s irritated with the military bureaucracy, especially when he begins to believe it is assisting in the cover-up of a murder it may have instigated. He’s also bothered that the Americans are attempting to enlist the services of a Nazi rocket scientist (similar to Von Braun). Both the Americans and the Russians seem willing to do anything necessary to win this scientist’s services, and this includes covering up crimes more horrendous than one man’s murder. It is, in fact, the nature of these crimes that make the Americans want to find Brandt — to go further would ruin the film, but the outcome is hardly as straightforward as I suggest here. Clooney sometimes seems to be mimicking Humphrey Bogart, especially when he continually insists that it was his stringer he was sleeping with before the war, not his secretary.

The film’s title resonates with several levels of irony that change in meaning at key points. There is probably not a single good German, or any other kind of person, in the film.

The final scene seems a direct replication of the ending of Casablanca (with a few minor notes from The Maltese Falcon thrown in for good measure). Yet there is a difference. In the Bogart film Rick gives up the woman he loves for the larger sake of the Allied cause in the war. In The Good German, Clooney gives up the woman he loves because he can’t accept her behavior during the war, and because he wants to avoid dirtying himself by association. He’s guilty enough as it is, along with every other character, along with the Americans and the Soviets and the Germans.

In the end, The Good German criticizes American willingness to hire ex-Nazis to design and build its weapons following the end of the war. The criticism is valid, of course, but one might well ask what alternative there was. If the Americans didn’t recruit German scientists, they would have gone over to the Soviet side, and in fact both sides did more than their share of welcoming former Nazi scientists to their weapons-building efforts. An alternative would have been placing the scientists on trial for their war crimes. And of course the Russians and Americans could have decided not to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems, but this film concerns the realities of the 1940s, not should-have-been fantasies.

The Russian and American emphasis following the war’s end, sharpened by the double nuclear bombing in Japan, was on preparing for the new world order. In this regard The Good German is glib and simplistic in its indictment of American willingness to employ Nazi scientists and (by extension) to develop a nuclear weapons program. Or maybe not. Maybe it is simply calling for recognition that American actions following the war’s end implicated us in some of the worst crimes associated with the conflict.

The fact that one director could make this film and Oceans 13 within a single year is a tribute to Soderbergh’s versatility.

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  • Black Hole

    It seems to me that you have deliberately refrained from commenting on Blanchett’s portrayal of Lena.

  • H. Ruppersburg

    In response to the previous comment, I did not deliberately leave Cate Blanchett’s portrayal out, though clearly I overlooked her. I commented on the elements in the film that struck me as interesting. Although I admire Blanchett’s acting, especially in such a film as Notes on A Scandal, I don’t find her performance as Lena to be a strong point in The Good German. I felt the character was flat, without much affect, though one could argue that flatness was a result of what she had gone through during the war.