‘Good German’ tells post-WWII tale


George Clooney, Cate Blanchette and Tobey Maguire star a post-WWII mystery tale of a moral compromise and the will to live in The Good German, a dark thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh.

As some recent documentaries, including some shown at the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, have revealed, Jews in Europe sometimes took extraordinary steps to survive the Nazi assault, passing as Christian or even sleeping with the enemy, to escape their lethal grasp. The Good German uses a film noir mystery set in post-war Berlin to explore the choices one woman made to survive. The Good German was originally slated to open in St. Louis last year but skipped our city for its theatrical run. It is now available on DVD.

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The Good German is set in late 1940s American-occupied Berlin. It mimics the film noir style of that era, much as Far From Heaven was made in the 1950s style of Dennis Sirk melodramas. The stark black and white photography and visually striking compositions evoke images of the classic post-war thriller The Third Man and other film noir classics. The Good German also evokes The Third Man’s moral cloudiness and head-turning plot twists. This new mystery employs not just the black-and-white photography but also recreates the whole style of filmmaking of the late 40s in camera angles and transitions. It looks very much like a film of the era, apart from some more graphic violent and sex scenes that would have not made it past the censors.

George Clooney plays Jacob Geismer, a Jewish American reporter attached to the Army, who is returning to post-war Berlin, where he had been stationed before the war. Through his baby-faced but opportunistic driver Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), he re-connects with German citizen Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchette). Destitute and struggling to survive, Lena is desperate to leave the country. Before the war, she was an elegant woman married to a rising German scientist Emil Brandt (Christian Oliver). Although her husband was Christian, she was not but somehow had managed to escape Nazi attention despite her Jewish identity. Now, both the Americans and Russians were looking for her nuclear physicist husband, reportedly dead but rumored to be alive.

This backstory sets up a cat-and-mouse game, with each side trying to manipulate information to their advantage. While the thriller plot unfolds, The Good German adds another layer, exploring issues of moral choices and ethical dilemmas and the lengths to which people will go to simply survive. Nothing is straightforward and no one is quite what he or she seems in this dark and challenging film.

The film boosts an outstanding cast, which it puts to good use. First-rate acting is a highlight of this polished film. Tobey Maguire is excellent playing a very unexpected, more sinister role and one wonders if concern over the nice guy image of the Spider-Man star might have played a part in the film’s limited theatrical release. George Clooney is fine as the news hound, motivated by his own reasons to pursue the facts. Cate Blanchette is, of course, wonderful as the complex, beleaguered survivor.

The Good German has studio-level high production values but the stylistic choice to closely copy the filmmaking style of a 1940s drama might not be to everyone’s taste. However, fans of classic film noir should delight in this homage to the films of that era. Some filmgoers may find its ending quite unsettling.

While The Good German is a worthy film, it never quite achieves the level of the classic The Third Man, its clear inspiration. But for fans of film noir, and those who like a little intellectual meat in their films, The Good German is a good rental choice.