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May 25, 2008
The Good German
I don't stray much into Hollywood (well American independent) territory at present, however, a cheap deal on The Good German (Soderbergh 2006) tempted me. The film was worth its £5-00 although I wouldn't rate it as brilliant but well worth seeing. The mise en scene seemed to be a straight derivation of Rossellini's Germany Year Zero combined with Carol Reed's The Third Man. There were also shades of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca. This tells us a lot about the aspirations of the film, however, setting itself against these standards the film was very unlikely to excel. These sort of judgements are relative after all and I have found that, despite any shortcomings measured against the iconic films of the 20th century referred to above, the film leaves a reflective viewer with much to think about. Other films that contain a melancholic air of mystery, in a Berlin in which nothing and nobody are quite as they seem are 1960s spy-thrillers such as The Quiller Memorandum. Although although shot in colour Soderbergh seeks a mise en scene that is downcast and dirty like that of The Good German which is shot in black and white.
Shooting in black and white is a deliberate aesthetic device which, for a film literate audience many of whom have seen documentary footage from the time, is probably a more effective way of being placed in that time period than shooting in colour. The device serves to heighten the reality effect of the film in a way reminiscent of Spielberg's Shindler. The film is very auteurist in the sense that Soderberg did his own cinematography and editing as well with the film's credits to Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard being pseudonyms. According to the Guardian DVD release review the film 'tanked':
The Good German tanked about as badly as it's possible to tank (from an estimated $32m budget, it brought in $1.2m in the US). (Rob Mackie The Guardian Nov 2007)
I think it is a pity it didn't do well. Flawed it might be but given the amount of real rubbish that people spend their time watching this film rates. When it comes to getting into the pantheons of the great, better to have tried but failed than not tried at all. This film raises underlying issues about society which Rossellini, Carol Reed nor Curtiz managed; that alone makes it worth seeing.
Cate Blanchett put in a memorable performance although sometimes I felt her accent didn't quite hold together. The film's aesthetics were generally very good and the use of the chiaoscuro lighting worked very effectively. Many would attribute this style to 'film noir' although of course both German and French films pre-war used this type of lighting a lot. The Times online review is a classic fudge in this respect. The reviewer specifically denies the core political issues underlying the film and tries to critique the film as a bad rehash of a "film noir", a category which primarily exists in the eyes of a certain group of critics in any case. This is the sort of bad reviewing which one might expect from a Murdoch paid hack in thrall to the status quo. Although the Channel 4 review is considerably better, it too sees the film in a hackneyed way as a 'film noir' to describe the category.
I largely agree with the estimates of the performances from Erica Abeel writing an insightful review in Film Journal International. Like her I initially felt that the Clooney character didn't quite gel and lacked the necessary deep erotically driven obsession required by the part. Perhaps our view of how Clooney should have played the part is highly romanticised in relation to The Third Man and Casablanca. Perhaps the direction of Clooney is precisely to show up to audience their dependency upon conventions of romance. Only when Lena declares that she wants to make love with Geismer does the audinece understand that the pre-war relationship really had extremely powerful erotic resonances. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be like Casablanca after all? In Abeel's suggestion that Tobey Mcguire was a serious miscasting error to play the deeply unpleasant Tully rather missed the point. Precisely because nothing in Berlin was as it seems allows the typecasting of Hollywood genredom to be broken. Because Lena saw in him a 'boy' just like her husband, the innocent looks of McGuire provide an explanation of Lena putting up with him albeit to further her own agenda.
Lena Brandt shouldn't be associated with the notion of the 'femme fatale' - at least one blog has- certainly she is the object of desire for Clooney who leads him to put himself into danger. His desire also put him into conflict with the wishes of authority. These aspects don't make her a femme fatale as such. Arguably her character functions as a trope for a Berlin which is entirely different to the prewar Berlin of Geismer's experience. Lena Brandt doesn't evince any interest in Geismer, and her determination to achieve her aim would go up to the point of shooting him. The scene in which she pulls a gun on Geismer is underpinned by a change in the diegetic sound track for the audience to experience her thoughts as she makes her way down sewers towards her husband, who we are about to see for the first time in the film approximately three quarters of the way through. This is an excellent aesthetic device and well handled, as an audience we are convinced that this is a very different Lena from the one that Geismer knew prior to the war. This shift to interiority is unusual and as a device moves the audience into the realm of the subjugated female voice which is unable to tell its tale out loud. This is hardly traditional femme fatale territory. For the knowing audience too who might wish to think about the gun scene as a 'pastiche' of Phyllis Dietrichson shooting Neff (Double Indemnity), worth remembering that Phyllis couldn't finish the job. This interiority tells the audience that Lena is on a mission and would shoot Geismer.
The occasional sceptical comment has been made about redemption, yet this is what the core motivation for Lena was. It was her raison d'etre, were she simply a survivor she could have easily left Berlin, but in a psychoanalytical way this characterisation was right. Whilst apparently some audiences took the line 'It is impossible to leave Berlin' as an overpompous statement the fact that the film exists at all and creates resonances tells us something about the position of Berlin as a city at a synechdochal and mythical level. What has easily been dismissed as pastiche by 'knowing' audiences might be an artistic flaw but in terms of the underlying meaning perhaps shouldn't be quite so quickly dismissed.
My own doubts about aspects of authenticity within the film relate to the prewar experiences of Geismer and Lena Brandt. What held to to Berlin at a time when she might have been still able to get out. After all until 1938 the emphasis of the Nazis was one of pushing Jews out of the country rather than mass extermination. Given that she was in an adulterous relationship with Geismer at the time justified by Geismer on the grounds that the husband was hardly ever around what was the nature of the relationship with the husband. Given that Geismer was of Jewish extraction surely these issues would have been discussed at the time?
Films set in Berlin frequently use the sewers and the underground as a spatial trope to express the subterranean desires, activities and practices in post-war Berlin. Here Lena Brandt is making her way towards her husband's hideout.
Edward Dimendberg is concerned with examining the representation of spatial relationships of the city within 'Film Noir'. He particularly focuses upon the constructions and representations of centrifugal and centripetal space. However these spatial representations don't really seem to work with films that are better charactersied as 'Rubble films', where the breakdown of the precepts of modernity and the need to re-establish this discourse is of primary concern. Taking this architectural / geographical discourse into account allows us to think of The Good German as separate from but linked to the critical construction 'Film Noir' tempting though it is to entirely conflate it with 'noir'. These rubble films certainly introduce 'the tensions permeating centripetal space' (Dimendberg p 91), the centrifugal though is associated with the powers and tensions of the state at the international level which will eventually lead to the Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949 and the establishing of the Berlin Wall which became a synechdoche of the 'Cold War'. The subterranean spaces of the 'rubble film' need to be worked into a fuller analysis of the spatial representations of modernity.
The Viennese sewers in The Third Man offering quite literally underground networks of crime and transitions betwen differetn sectors of the city. In 1945 Vienna too was an internationally run city between the American, British, French and of course the Soviets.
At times the sets seemed a little too artificial, such as the high angle shot of the airport strip at the end where all the crates seemed just a little too perfet and things smacked of CGI. Rossellini's Germany Year Zero shot in Berlin a few months after the setting of this film (which was July 1945) had a certain dustinesss to it.
Soderbergh makes great play of restricting himself to camera lenses and equipment of the day. This means The Good German unspools with the requisite one camera set-ups, screen wipes, even the flickering, linking archive clips it would have utilized had it been made in 1945, rather than just set then. (Channel 4 Review)
At times there was a visual contrast between the archive footage and the modern set footage. For example when Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) pulls a gun on Geismer (George Clooney) and there is a low angle shot which shows a clouded sky through a shell or bomb hole in the roof of the building. There was something which was too carefully constructed about this.
The film raised two especially interesting issues. Firstly it was a clear political attack on the US and its preparedness to cover up certain issues in order to gain superiority in any forthcoming arms race. The fact was that Geismer had been unwittingly brought to Berlin to help the Americans track down Lena Brandt with the hope that she would lead Geismer and then them too the whereabouts of her husband Emil Brandt who they wished to eliminate.
Geismer with the driver he has been assigned called Tully (Tobey McGuire) meet Lena Brandt in a Bar. Tully is a convincingly unpleasant amoral opportunist who is Brandt's current lover. Unbeknownst to Tully Geismer and Brandt had a relationship prior to the war.
The film is a conspiracy type of thriller which has a political message that contradicts most of the films within this genre. These usually pit an able but näif hero against some mavericks within the system (the Bourne series for example). The hero with the help of an insider who upholds the true value of the constitution eventually manages to defeat the mavericks who become power obsessed.
Here the 'mavericks' were the most powerful people in the country and they were determined to get their way. It was made clear that the future next hundred years was what was being played for as the high stake Potsdam treaty discussions unfurl in the background. Soderbergh's film raises the question of how much Nazi activity was engaged in by the scientists on the advanced nuclear and rocket weapons programmes, and as a concommittent how far America was prepared to sweep history under the carpet for the sake of gaining the expertise for its own postwar weapons programme.
A futher question which is raised by the film is jsut how much we should be judgemental of those Jews who ended up collaborating with the Nazi programme in order to save their own skins (quite literally). The denouement at the very end Lina finally admits the awful secret she has been hiding from Geismer, however Clooney had to press her to get her to admit it. He wouldn't have done this without Bernie (Leland Orsner) having pointed out that what was in her file could have her put away for life in terms of crimes against humanity. But in a world where everybody is feverishly following their own agendas, love intersts, money, reasons of state regardless of any attempt to stick to moral codes is Geismer's moral judgementalism fully justified or should we be looking to "the mote in our own eyes"?
Soderberg's The Good German certainly provides food for thought. It raises questions of moral ambivalence, questions of loyalty, truth and morality when the traditional mores of society have been broken down by war and the complete breakdown of civil society where the rule of law needs to be re-established and become respected. In this sense a contemporary reader could apply the situation to post-Saddam Iraq as much as to Berlin, but that conflict will doubtless generate its own specific stories in due course.
Dealing with the film it gradually dawning on me just how important the representations of Berlin in film are within a Western consciousness. Whether it is the pre-war Berlin of Joe May or Fritz Lang, the post-war Berlin of Rossellini, Le Carré there is a human geography of fragmentation, displacement, division, disillusion, ambivalence and masquerade in which Berlin has become a key synedoche. If somebody isn't doing a PhD on this very subject they ought to be!
Dimendberg Edward 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard University Press.