Who wouldn't want to see a new thriller from the Oscar-winning director of "Traffic," starring George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett? The answer, at least this past December, was "Everybody."
Warner Bros. decided early on that despite the presence of so much A-list talent, "The Good German" was going to rise or fall based entirely on rave reviews and Oscar buzz. When the reviews were mostly negative and only Oscar buzz was for Thomas Newman's score, the studio promptly buried the movie. That a movie with this much creative clout never played in more than 66 theaters and failed to make more than $1.4 million in its domestic theatrical run borders on astounding.
Some of the mystery is cleared up actually watching "The Good German," which premieres in an extras-free DVD on Tuesday (May 22). Despite all of assembled talent, "The Good German" was never, under any circumstances, going to be a hit. It's an awfully suffocating intellectual exercise of a film. Fans of classic Hollywood cinema will find ample amusement in Steven Soderbergh's formal experiment, but viewers expecting military intrigue will be left cold.
Clooney plays a reporter who arrives in Berlin on the eve of the Potsdam conference. When somebody close to him turns up dead, he's thrown in the middle of a tug-of-war that involves the Germans, Russians, corrupt American politicians and the woman he used to love (Blanchett).
"The Good German" is one of the rare films that aficionados will want to own in regular format, rather than widescreen. Although the movie contains the standard "this movie has been edited to fit your screen" boilerplate, the regular edition is the one that most preserves Soderbergh's decision to shoot the film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
Soderbergh and cinematographer Peter Andrews (Soderbergh's DP alter ego, but I'll preserve the illusion) shoot in 1945-style black and white, using sets and intentionally flat backdrops. The lighting is often harsh and the audio quality on the sound effects and dialogue are rudimentary, picked up with hand-operated boom mikes. Paul Attanasio's script, from Joseph Kanon's novel, is full of stage-ready monologues and patriotic speechifying. In turn, the performances are period-appropriate, stagy and hyper-articulated. Blanchett, in particular, is going out of her way to portray an Ingrid Bergman or Marlene Dietrich archetype.
The movie never clearly states its intentions as a pure homage or as a satire or parody of the genre. Yes, it's remarkable watching Soderbergh nod to "Open City" or "The Third Man" or "Casablanca," but at times I equally expected Steve Martin to burst in off the set of "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid." Since Soderbergh doesn't seem to care about the movie's central mystery, viewers probably won't either and after a while it becomes pointless to watch the movie merely for its mimeographic precision.
The absence of extras on the DVD isn't surprising given how totally the studio dumped it. A Soderbergh commentary citing his various influences or a behind-the-scenes featurette showing the technical challenges of this kind of genre reproduction will have to wait for a hypothetical special edition.