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
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