- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

If you often find yourself leaving the theater saying, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” “The Good German” might be the movie for you.

It was made like they used to do — literally.

Director Steven Soderbergh’s latest experiment is a film noir set in 1945 that looks as if it were made in 1945.

He chose not to use zoom lenses, natural lighting or wireless body microphones, the stock in trade of today’s filmmakers. Instead, he made his movie with fixed focal-length lenses, incandescent lighting and boom mikes — equipment widely in use in the golden age of Hollywood. The black-and-white film is even in a different aspect ratio from most modern movies.

“The Good German” takes place in Berlin, but, as in the 1940s, it was shot only in Los Angeles, mostly on studio back lots and sets. It even reportedly uses stock footage from films such as Billy Wilder’s 1948 “A Foreign Affair.”

The only thing Mr. Soderbergh did that filmmakers couldn’t do in 1945 was put in a bit of strong language, nudity and violence.

Not just in how, but also in what, he chooses to film, Mr. Soderbergh has created something that also takes on often seen traits from a bygone era — characters smoke in this film, for example.

“The Good German” may be an homage, but in its exploration of themes such as betrayal in war and peace, Mr. Soderbergh has made a film distinctly his own.

The movie’s milieu brings “The Third Man” to mind. New Republic war correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney) has come to Berlin in July 1945 to cover the Potsdam Conference, in which the victorious powers are gathering to divy up the spoils. His driver is Patrick Tully (“Spider-Man” Tobey Maguire), an Army man with a more lucrative hobby as a racketeer. The two clash when Geismer discovers that his former mistress Lena (Cate Blanchett, “Elizabeth”) is now Tully’s girl.

That may be the least of the reporter’s worries. Stumbling upon a dead body — I won’t ruin the surprise by telling you whose — Geismer finds himself embroiled in an investigation that endangers his life and the outcome of postwar peace.

Mr. Soderbergh’s experiment paid off: “The Good German” is one of the most visually stunning films of the year. The careful shot in which Lena and Geismer finally kiss is a perfect, striking blend of shadow and light. Mr. Soderbergh — working as his own cinematographer and editor under a pseudonym — plays with it throughout the film to great effect.

His perfect casting of the two leads helped. Mr. Clooney is the closest thing we have to an old-time movie star along the lines of Cary Grant. The style of acting that Mr. Soderbergh’s methods required — speaking loudly and clearly to be heard by the boom mike, for instance — comes easily to Mr. Clooney. Miss Blanchett is ravishing, as always; her chiseled cheekbones and pale coloring are particularly suited to black and white. Her German accent, owing much to Marlene Dietrich, is fine.

“The Good German” isn’t just a visual feast, however. Running throughout the espionage piece is the question of whether all Germans were responsible for the unimaginable evil of the Holocaust.

“If we dismiss an entire people because of a few bad apples, then we’re no better than Hitler,” a U.S. senator insists.

In movies of this type, however, as one character says in another context, “Nobody’s hands are clean.” (You can tell Tully’s a bad man, after all, when he tells a contact, “Just don’t Jew me on the price.”)

Anyone who has seen “Casablanca” will have an idea of how this movie ends — the final scene mirrors that of the 1942 movie. The ending here isn’t nearly so satisfying; it’s the biggest flaw of the film.

“The Good German” won’t be an instant classic like “Casablanca,” but in more ways than one, it reminds us of how much we can learn from the past.

***

TITLE: “The Good German”

RATING: R (Language, violence and some sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Paul Attanasio based on the novel by Joseph Kanon.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: thegoodgerman.warnerbros.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS.

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