'The Good German" is to "Casablanca" what Oasis was to the Beatles -- not nearly as good as the original, deliberately derivative, but reasonably entertaining on its own merits.
Filmed in glorious black-and-white by the ever-adventurous Steven Soderbergh and starring Soderbergh's "Ocean's 11" etc. buddy George Clooney, this is a flawed but interesting attempt to capture not only the look but the acting style and the noir-ish tones of mid-19th century classics ranging from the aforementioned Bogart-Bergman standard to "Germany: Year Zero," "The Third Man" and "A Foreign Affair." Co-star Tobey Maguire in particular seems to be imitating the clipped tones and rapid-fire verbalisms favored by many actors of the era, and Cate Blanchett's performance, featuring an accent so sturdy you could drape a pair of lederhosen on it, seems to be a feature-length tribute to Marlene Dietrich.
Clooney's star power is such that this is second black-and-white film in two years, coming just 14 months after his triumphant directing-co-writing-acting turn in "Good Night, and Good Luck." In an adaptation of the novel by Joseph Kanon, Clooney plays Jake Geismer, a cynical American magazine journalist who returns to Berlin in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
The Americans and Russians are carving up the spoils while jockeying for advantages in the burgeoning arms race, and eyeing each other across the street like a couple of heavyweight prizefighters who figure it's only a matter of time before they step into the ring. Both governments are keenly interested in tracking down one Emil Brandt, a brilliant rocket scientist who was thought to be dead but is now rumored to be in hiding somewhere in the city. Brandt would be an invaluable addition to either side in the match race to develop the frighteningly potent V-2 rocket.
Geismer is ostensibly in Germany to cover the meetings at which Truman and Churchill will map out Europe's future, but he's really not that interested in the peace conference or in the quest for Emil Brandt -- unless it will gain him points with Brandt's wife, the mysterious and duplicitous Lena. She is the object of his obsession. Geismer had a torrid wartime affair with Lena and he's never been able to forget her, though she seems to have moved on quite nicely, thank you.
Lena is now involved with Maguire's Corporal Tully, Jake's driver, who comes across as an All-American, can-do type of guy at first but is harboring a much darker side. Between Jake and Tully, there were, and still are, many other suitors, aka clients. Seems Lena has survived the last few years on her back -- and just maybe by selling out a few neighbors.
And then there is a murder, and the investigation of that crime takes on a life of its own that seems to be about much more than the murder, and soon Jake and Lena are caught up in something that's bigger than the both of them. (There is an airport scene late in this film in which I fully expected Jake to tell Lena to get on a plane because after all, their problems don't amount to a "hill of beans in this crazy world.")
Any further discussion of the plot of "The Good German" would involve such caveats as, "I'm pretty sure," and "I'm reasonably certain," and "They lost me there." The screenplay would have to go through a few rewrites to reach the status of convoluted -- and even if I understood exactly why everybody was doing what they're doing at various points, I'm not sure I would have cared that much about the very things that are consuming Jake and Lena and the various Russian and American military operatives.
The driving force of the story isn't the quest to find Emil Brandt, it's Jake's willingness to do anything to "save" Lena (from herself or from outside forces) and to win her back. Why? Is he planning to take his German girlfriend/prostitute/possible informer back to the States so she can tend to the flowers in the backyard house while he becomes an editor with the New Republic? Is he hoping she'll accompany him on post-war assignments in the years to come? Or does he just want to roll around with her a few more times?
Blanchett is an attractive woman, if unconventionally so, and she is among the finest actresses in the world. I'd probably buy her as Emil Brandt, let alone Lena. Yet there's little in the character of Lena to make us believe so many men would be so utterly entranced by her.
Still. The photography is so beautiful, and the actors make brave choices, and Soderbergh's homage to the films he so obviously loves is done with such grace and passion -- so there's just enough that works to outweigh the major plot concerns. "The Good German" gets three and a half stars for style and two stars for story, and this being the holiday season and all, I believe that rounds up to a three-star review.