Revisiting a kind of indulgent nostalgia itch not scratched since Kafka, Steven Soderbergh followed up the DIY DV aesthetic of Bubble with an exhaustive, arsenic-laced love letter to the golden age of cinema. Adapted from the Joseph Kanon novel, The Good German, in almost all technical and stylistic aspects, is a tender recreation of studio-era filmmaking. It’s shot largely on backlots with archival footage interspersed to lend credibility, framed in 1.33:1 ratio. Soderbergh acted as his own cinematographer and editor here as well, bathing every scene in sharp chiaroscuro lighting and utilizing old-school staging techniques to reduce the number of cuts necessary for narrative coherence.

Set in the days leading up to the Potsdam Conference, The Good German is the kind of wartime noir that Hollywood used to be very adept at churning out. War correspondent Jake Geismer (George Clooney) investigates a murder everyone else in Berlin would rather be left an “accident.” His driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), was an American soldier luxuriating in the rampant graft left in the postwar vacuum, but before he’s found dead, Jake finds out Tully was involved with a woman named Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), an old flame from before the war. Jake tries to find out who killed Tully and why, all the while struggling to rekindle his relationship with Lena, not able to understand that the war has changed her irreparably.

With the borderline sycophantic dedication to period-appropriate form here, it’s easy to reduce the film to little more than the bastard son of Casablanca and The Third Man. But The Good German is a good deal more subversive than that. It plays in the same postwar Berlin sandbox as the Carol Reed classic, but the effective aesthetic impersonation is directly at odds with other elements of the film. The casting, for instance, seems really smart on paper. Clooney, Maguire and Blanchett each have qualities that wouldn’t have been out of place in the ‘40s, but they also provide anachronistic tension by virtue of their relative modernity. Clooney, in particular, has always been a movie star in the classic mold, but his trademark facial tics and the unique glint of his eyes both set him apart from the era he so naturally evokes. He’s plagued by a kind of self-awareness that never hounded Gable or Grant.

That strangeness, the chasm between how we remember this halcyon era from the silver screen and how we now know it to have truly been, is the real crux of the film. Soderbergh lures the viewer in with his painstaking homage, and then corrupts the proceedings with a percussive vulgarity forcing a confrontational depiction of history. Maguire presents perhaps his career-best work as the baby-faced soldier who hurls profanity like Joe Pesci. Whenever violence occurs, Soderbergh breaks away from that theatrical staging, replacing it with quick, oppressive cuts of kicks and punches. The result is a motion picture that walks and talks like Turner Classic Movies, but leaves a sour, IFC aftertaste.

There’s a romanticism in films like Casablanca that is utterly perverted here, if not outright mocked. Blanchett’s Lena is like the darkest timeline Ilsa, a woman so tortured by her regret and shame that she’s a crystalline statuette of self-hatred. Throughout the film, various characters tease Jake that he doesn’t know just how much Lena has changed or what she’s done, but he’s blinded by his pristine image of the time they shared before all this madness enveloped the world. The film’s plot may be principally concerned with Nazi scientists being traded like Pokémon cards between nations, but Jake’s fruitless quest to go back to a time that no longer exists is the perfect distillation of the postwar psyche. For Jake, it’s a woman, but for the rest of the world, it’s the fleeting notion of a time before all of existence could be snuffed out with the single drop of a bomb.

Like Casablanca. The Good German ends with two estranged lovers outside of a plane on the runway. But where the former makes a powerful statement about the betterment of the world being more important than the love between Rick and Ilsa, the latter ends with Lena telling Jake just what she did to survive as a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. It ends exposing the chilling baseness of human nature, and how that darkness has enshrouded not only Jake’s lost love, but the rest of the world as well.

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