The History Place - Movie Review

The Good German

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Director Steven Soderbergh is probably best known for the slick blockbusters, Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve, both of which featured George Clooney leading an all-star cast. But Soderbergh and Clooney also have their serious sides. Clooney's emerged in his 2005 directorial tour-de-force, the black-and-white homage to journalist Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck. Soderbergh's serious streak can be traced all the way back to Kafka in 1991.

The Good German is a decidedly different Soderbergh-Clooney collaboration. The homage this time isn't to a person but to a genre. In 1942 Warner Brothers released Casablanca, a film that rivals Citizen Kane as a leading contender for best film ever. Shot entirely on a Hollywood back lot, Casablanca evoked the seamy side of a war-torn world, peopled by corrupt cops, noble saloon keepers, idealistic patriots and sleazy black-marketers.

Soderbergh also shot The Good German on Warner's back lot and sound stages, using the same film-noire lighting and grainy black-and-white film associated with Casablanca. The plot, too, is a constant reminder of the Bogart-Bergman classic. The locale is a 1945 Berlin that is every bit as sleazy and corrupt as Bogie's 1942 North African town.

Clooney, as war correspondent Jake Geismar, brings Bogart's tired good looks and his love of unfiltered cigarettes and hard liquor to the role. But unlike Bogie's Rick, Geismar is never in control of the situation. He almost never wins a fight. In fact, he loses a lot of them. Kate Blanchett's Lena Brandt is the hard-boiled counterpart of Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa Lund. Casablanca fans will remember that Ilsa left Rick in Paris.

In Soderbergh's adaptation of Joseph Kanon's novel upon which this film is based, Jake, who ran the Associated Press bureau in Berlin before the war, abandoned Lena, his stringer and mistress. What Lena, who is Jewish but married to an SS officer, did to survive the Holocaust and the war, forms the core mystery that Jake struggles to solve. Along the rubble-strewn road to the truth, Geismar encounters Tully (Toby Maguire), the film's version of Peter Lorre's Ugati.

Ugati had the priceless letters of transit, that meant safe passage to freedom for Ilsa and her heroic husband, Victor Lazlo. Tully, too, possesses papers--the wartime notebooks of Lena's husband, the Good German of the title. Just as everyone wanted those letters of transit in Casablanca, so everyone wants the Good German's notebooks, but not for a flight to freedom. The papers, if they surface, will put important people in prison.

Ultimately, for all its homage-like similarity to Warner's wartime films, The Good German is a cold-blooded portrait of the corruption, cynicism and cruelty that festered in the rubble of post-war Berlin. The Russians arrived first, raping and pillaging. "We've shipped whole factories back home," reveals a Russian officer to Jake. "Compensation for all the suffering and sacrifices."

The Americans, exemplified by Tully, are like kids in a candy store. Back home, they only knew what it was like not to have money. In Berlin in '45, 'Occupation Marks' were plentiful and they bought everything, including the bodies of a vanquished population. To his superiors, Tully plays the All-American Boy. "The Germans bake good strudel, sir, but it can't match mom's apple pie." Behind their backs he deals Scotch and cigarettes to the Russians, indulges his appetite for rough sex with Lena, whom he promises to get out of Berlin, and works the system for all it's worth. The war killed millions, he muses as he takes Lena in a shabby bedroom, but "it's the best thing that ever happened to me."

As American foreign policy is repositioned to deal with the coming Cold War, cynical American generals and politicians persuade themselves that we Yanks mustn't blame a whole nation for "a few bad apples." Some of the bad apples must even be polished. After all, if they could build Buzz-bombs and V-2 rockets, who knows what they could do when they're safely resettled in America.

When Jake Geismar naively questions this policy, a government official slaps a copy of Stars and Stripes against his chest. "Don't you read the papers, Jake?" Geismar opens the newspaper to see the headline "Atomic Bomb kills thousands."

Neither the Good German nor his ruthless wife count for much, when weighed in the balance against the Superpower struggle for supremacy in the dawning nuclear age. Getting them out of Berlin poses a bigger challenge for Jake than Rick faced in plotting to fly Victor and Ilsa out of Casablanca.

Rated R - For language, violence and some sexual content.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

The Good German - Official Website
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