Sunday, February 18, 2007

THE GOOD GERMAN needs a good DP

THE GOOD GERMAN is a pastiche of movies like CASABLANCA, THE THIRD MAN and CHINATOWN. Director Steven Soderbergh sets himself a sort of technical exercise: to recreate an old-fashioned noir-thriller using the technical apparatus available to film-makers at the time. To that end, the movie is shot in black-and-white using the appropriate camera equipment on a Hollywood back-lot. The resulting film is technically incompetent. Soderbergh betrays a lack of technical mastery that is unforgivable in a technical exercise of this sort: or at the very least, a lack of practical humility in refusing to hire a Director of Photography with the requisite skills. The lighting and treatment of the film stock results in a poorly lit and often under or over exposed movie which jars the viewer. To see old-fashioned cinema techniques done properly one need look no further than some of Lars von Trier's early movies, not least Zentropa. Still, the cack-handed photography is to some extent offset by the appropriate orchestral score and the spot-on production design.

Technical failure aside, how does THE GOOD GERMAN fare as a thriller? I'm split on this. On the one hand, I think the casting is a complete failure. Tobey Maguire is unconvincing - simply too light - as a young American GI on the make in post-war Berlin. He's meant to be a cunning, anti-Semitic, abusive black-marketeer pimping out his glamorous girlfriend played by Cate Blanchett. Maguire's performance is so superficial that the relationship isn't sold to the audience. As for Cate Blanchett, as much as I admire her acting chops, to be cruel, she simply doesn't have the conventional beauty required for such a role. Moreover, her decision to lower the tone of her voice to approximate a sort of Garbo-seductive tone is a mis-fire. It sounds like a mockery. Moreover, her accent is inconsistent and basically not very German. George Clooney is by far the most appropriately cast as a journalist investigating a murder at the Potsdam conference and the truth about Cate Blanchett's character. Although he betrays a rather limited range, the only definite clanger is when he speaks German with an accent and fluency ridiculously poor for a character who supposedly lived in Berlin before the war.

The plot itself is just fine. Moderately interesting and I did want to know whodunnit and whytheydunnit. In fact, I now want to read the source novel and have my enjoyment of the story unencumbered by poor photography, Cate Blanchett's accent and Soderbergh's clumsy nods to noir classics. You'll get an idea of how clumsy these are when I tell you that Clooney spends much of the film with a plaster across his ear, Nicholson stylee.

Overall, then, what can I say? Despite its manifest flaws, THE GOOD GERMAN does sort of work as a thriller. Perhaps one for DVD?

THE GOOD GERMAN played Berlin and Dublin 2007. It has already opened in the US, Argentina and France and opens in Singapore and Sweden next week. It opens in Germany, Austria and Italy on March 2nd and in Australia, Spain and the UK on March 9th. It opens in Belgium and Iceland on the 16th and in Brazil on the 23rd. It opens in India, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Norway and Japan in April.

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