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The Good German
by Joseph Kanon

. "The Good German"

Director Steven Soderbergh and Co. must've loved the films of the fifties because they just made one... or, emulated one. Call it "Casablanca" redux. Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon, the film is in black and white, it's noirish, its characters are involved in tense, life-or-death intrigue. It's staged in a bombed out Berlin after the Nazis have fallen and American and Russian forces vie for control from their respective sectors.

Network correspondent Jake Geismar (George Clooney) returns to the war ravaged city at the time of the Potsdam Convention as though it's what brought him there. But the assignment he's really interested in is finding his wartime assistant and lover Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). He's met at his arrival by Tully (Tobey Maguire), a military driver from the motor pool who turns out to be a well-connected opportunist whose specialties include anything on the black market and pimping. Tully offers Geismar a woman, which is firmly rejected, but might not have been if Geismar had known the woman in question is the very one he wants to find.

The war has turned dark, svelte, mysterious Lena into a person who has done anything she needed to with anyone she needed to in order to survive. Whatever Geismar may have imagined about her, including a life with her he envisions, is a far more complicated undertaking than he could have suspected. But his passion readies him to accept anything, everything, her secrets, lies, vocation and betrayals. He becomes entirely complicit in her desire to get the papers necessary to get out of Berlin and, thence, Germany.

Meanwhile, Tully, in league with the Russians, makes a deal that goes uncompleted when turns up dead in the river on the Russian side with thousand of dollars on his body. Seeing the possibility of a story, he mixes into it by investigating and finds himself in high intrigue with U.S. military over their desire to find Lena's husband Emil, a missile expert they dearly want for American interests. The story of his untimely death six months ago apparently didn't float, since no body was ever discovered.

The plot is thick and soaked in noirish intrigue, double crosses, lies, setups and romantic baiting. Director Steven Soderbergh is clearly in 50's stylishness through every alleyway, military office and underground hiding place. Blanchett outdoes the house with her Germanic look and accent, only topped by makeup and hair that places her squarely in the time and place. Screenwriter Paul Attasio's dialogue completes the rendering that puts this performance in a whole other place than any of Blanchett's previous work ("Babel," "The Aviator"). She's deliciously femme fatale, down to her black market stockings.

The black and white imagery by cinematographer Steven Soderbergh (credited as Peter Andrews) plays the period noir card for all it's worth and, certainly, costume designer Louise Frogley is entirely complicit in the design with uniforms and gowns to kill for, at least as worn by Blanchett. It's a load of fun to watch as Clooney expertly embroils us into the American suitor with too much ardor for his own good. And thereby lies this Casablancan tale with historical perspective.

It only becomes too much when its homage to that classic turns into a goodbye scene in a downpour at the airport. Soderburgh should have resisted it, but he very outrightly indicates it as his guide in the development of Kanon's story from the git-go. If you haven't ever seen "Casablanca," don't rent it before you see this. If you see it after you see this, it will explain a few things and, for some, they won't all be good as far as originality goes. But, it's pretty terrific stuff, neverthless.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Wartime changes of values in the New Berlin
with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.
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