short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Good German (2006, USA)

Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German is little more than an exercise in style – a self-conscious recreation of 1940’s American war pic style, fashioned after classics such as Casablanca and The Third Man (to name two of the most obvious sources). Soderbergh and his crew (or perhaps more accurately, Soderbergh himself, as he served as both cinematographer and editor on this project, in addition to producer and director) painstakingly recreated basic stylistic details such as hazy-edged horizontal wipes and deep chiaroscuro lighting, and more complex anachronisms, such as the use of stock footage as background for moving car scenes. Mid-century filmmakers had no choice but to rely on technical crutches such as stock footage, whereas Soderbergh had all of the tools at his disposal to make his film look slick. Why didn’t he?

Perhaps he wanted to tell this story – a rote melodrama of betrayal at the tail end of World War II – in this particular way so as to pay homage to the above-mentioned films. Or perhaps he thought the story would be best served by the use of classic cinematic tropes. Or maybe he was just bored? The unfortunate fact is that for all of the hard work put into filmic detail, this stylistic choice does more to pull the audience out of the movie than draw it in, and this is particularly true during the opening 20 or 30 minutes. It’s jarring, rather than absorbing, and detracts more than it adds. This is a shame, as the cast looks perfect (and they act fairly well, too) – George Clooney and Cate Blanchette could be prototype matinee idols, and Tobey Maguire turns his youthfulness to a creepy advantage. Then again, with a story this weak, perhaps it’s a good thing that Soderbergh made the stylistic choices that he did, in order to keep the audience from falling asleep. With some exceptions (The Limey comes to mind), Soderbergh is an intellectual director, the heart of whose projects are often saved by his actors. His lack of warmth doesn’t meld well with melodrama.

There is at least one moderately interesting aside to be made, I think, at the intersection of classic visual style with a story in the more contemporary vein, and that is the presence of explicit sex, language and violence amid a traditionally restrained landscape. Not that sex, swearing, and blood are at all unusual in most WWII films produced today, but it is odd to see how they fit into a different frame. Again, I don’t think that this was as much of a suture as a rupture, but it was interesting to see such an impeccably-styled movie pull out of itself enough to self-consciously note the glaring omissions that post-Code films had to make when chronicling ordinary life (not to mention war).


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