Soderbergh's Good German Recalls Casablanca
When I screened Steven Soderbergh's The Good German for my UCLA class last night, the reaction was mixed. You'd think an older audience would enjoy a film that conjures up the look and feel of a 40s movie like Casablanca.
According to writer Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco), the plot, based on Joseph Kanon's novel, is reminiscent of Casablanca's love triangle about a man (George Clooney as a journalist returning to post-War Berlin) who reconnects with a lost love (Cate Blanchett as a German who hooks to survive) from his past who is protecting her husband (an SS scientist sought after by both the Americans and the Russians). The movie takes place at that pivotal time at the start of the Cold War when America dropped the Big Bomb on Japan. The filmmaking prowess is staggering—the high-contrast black and white photography, the complex mise-en-scene, the evocation of another era of filmmaking. (The film recalls both The Third Man and Chinatown.) But Soderbergh and Attanasio are messing with our heads. This movie asks: how fake and complacent and escapist was the original Casablanca? (One of our favorite movies of all time.) They layer in content from World War II that would never have passed studio muster at the time—concentration camps, complicity with Nazis, American military corruption, etc.
As Attanasio labored over the script for five years, Soderbergh threw things at him: like, make the female lead a prostitute, and, try telling the movie from multiple points-of-view. Tobey Maguire, who had turned down everything in sight until he read this script, was eager to play a foul-mouthed lout of a soldier who slaps around his hooker girlfriend. Early on, The Good German shocks us with a sex scene between Maguire and Blanchett that signals: hold on, this is not your ordinary movie.
And Clooney, while he's as handsome as ever, continues to resist playing a conventionally active hero. His lovelorn journalist keeps getting beat up and doesn't know what's going on. The actors had to figure out how to perform in a 40s pre-Method declarative style while fighting their instincts on how to be natural and believable, Attanasio said. Soderbergh is challenging audiences to question their expectations. Will they get a white knight hero who saves the day? A fallen woman who finds redemption? A little romance? Check it out.
To his credit, Soderbergh convinced everyone to shoot the film for no money. That's because The Good German is as experimental in its way as Soderbergh's Schizopolis, Kafka, Solaris, Full Frontal or The Limey. It will keep cinephiles like Dave Kehr and David Bordwell in clover for years as they deconstruct Soderbergh's exploration of the language of cinema. What's real? What's fake? What's genre? (This is film noir. Or is it?) What's point-of-view? What's a movie star? What do audiences want from a movie?
It is fascinating to be made aware of the effect of an echoey boom mike, a bombastic old-fashioned orchestral score (by Thomas Newman), a depth of field not seen for fifty years, or deep shadows carved on a beautiful woman's face. Some of the shots are simply stunning. The question of whether audiences will embrace a movie that does not draw them into complicity with its characters will be answered on December 15.