The most intriguing thing about The Good German is finding out just exactly who the title refers to. But it’s a long way until we get there, and the ride is bumpy and tortuously twisted.
The film is supposed to reflect the style of a 1940’s film noir, but with more gratuitous use of the “f” word. Shot in black and white, the film offers the classic chiaroscuro that was used in film noir to reflect the ambiguity of the characters…are they good or bad, of the light or of the darkness? One of the strengths of film noir was that we never quite knew who to root for, and we were kept on the edge of our seats trying to figure it out.
At least, that was the ideal, but it didn’t always work that way, and it doesn’t quite work out that way in The Good German. One of the weaknesses of film noir was that without a clearly defined hero, the audience had nobody to identify with, or whose story to care about. The same can be said of The Good German; the plot takes so many twists and turns, and the point of view character changes so many times, that by the time the identity of the good German is revealed, we don’t really care as much as the film has built us up to care.
The film begins in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II and centers, if it centers on anyone, around George Clooney. Clooney plays an AP reporter who used to be the Berlin correspondent, before the outbreak of the war, and now returns to Berlin to take up his post again. Once he gets there he encounters the American post-war presence, which is a combination of con-men, opportunists, and morally ambiguous bureaucrats with two goals in mind: beat the Russians at anything they might be trying to do and milk the suffering city for anything they can get out of it.
One such opportunist is Tobey Maguire, who is assigned as Clooney’s driver and who just isn’t that good at coming off as evil. Maguire is shacked up with prostitute Lina, played by Cate Blanchett, who, lo and behold, is Clooney’s former lover now turning tricks, as did so many other women, to survive the war. What a coincidence.
This is set up in the first 15 minutes, and from there the plot gets so complicated it’s impossible to follow and even more impossible to care. Somebody gets killed, and that propels us into this bizarre trail having something to do with Lina’s scientist husband, who used to work with some Nazi scientist but is now dead (or is he? Dum dum dummmmm….).
The bottom line is that despite some solid performances, the movie spends too much of its time slavishly imitating film noir conventions when it should be using that time to streamline the plot and develop the characters. Even the ending, which is supposed to reflect the famous airplane scene from Casablanca left me thinking, “THAT’S how it ends? THAT’S what I sat here for 2 hours for?”
Clooney, Blanchett, and Maguire have done far better work than this. It was a nice experiment, but it might be a better use of your time to watch one of those other films instead.