Monday, December 5, 2011

The Good German -- sacrifice, survival and smuggling

Director: Steven Soderbergh, 2006. (R)

Moody monochrome movies were a thing of the 40s and 50s. But Steven Soderbergh chose to make this film noir mystery, which is set in Berlin in July 1945, as though it were a creation of that era. With references to Casablanca and an ending that bears striking resemblance to that all-time classic, you might be mistaken for thinking Soderbergh is paying homage to that great. But this is no classic, despite the star-studded cast and Soderbergh’s efforts. It pales into comparison, mostly because the characters don’t grip us like Rick and Ilsa did.

To make it as authentic as possible, the film was shot in black and white with period lenses and incandescent light. Rather than using modern microphones, Soderbergh used booms as they did in those golden years. But to make a movie like the classics requires more than nostalgic technology; it requires a strong script and characters we care about. That is what is missing in this film.

George Clooney (The Ides of March) stars as Captain Jake Geismer, a reporter sent to Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference in which Berlin and Germany will be sliced up by the victorious allies: Britain, America and Russia. A journalist, he is given a captain’s uniform to allow him to navigate the treacherous streets of the city. While the war in Europe is over, it still continued in the Pacific, and echoes of the war were all around in the city of Berlin.

Arriving in Berlin, he is met by Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire, Brothers), an apparently bushy-tailed and innocent GI driver. Yet, he is master of the black market and uses his driving privileges to smuggle materials into and out of the Russian controlled part of the city. War has corrupted his innocence and allowed him to acquire a taste for money. He is also the current lover for Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, Hanna).

Lena is the femme fatale in this modern noir, and embodies the role with a Marlene Dietrich like approach. The black and white photography accentuates the shadowy life she lives. To complicate matters, Lena was Jake’s stringer and lover when he lived in pre-war Berlin. Naturally, tensions arise when Jake discovers this secret of Tully’s.

When an American soldier turns up dead in the Russian zone during the conference, both the Americans and the Russians want the murder to go away, simply disappear, despite the fact that the corpse had a pocketful of cash. Jake is the only one that seems to care, and wants to pursue solving the mystery. The second and third acts tell the story of his unofficial investigation.

The film divides neatly into three acts, each focusing mostly on one of these three main characters. Yet, none mean enough to us to want to walk with Jake. By the time end comes around, the payoff is poor and we don’t really care what happened. But each character offers a perspective on the epoch and some insight into morality.

Lena, the German, highlights the cost of survival in the midst of war. As we learn more and more about her it is clear that she carries secrets. Yet to survive through 6 years of war, she has had to make sacrifices, moral and ethical sacrifices. Living now as a woman of the street, she prostitutes herself to live. When times get tough, what are we willing to sacrifice to survive? Would we sell our belongings? Our homes? Our bodies? Or to turn the question around, what is so sacrosanct that we would not compromise even to survive? Is our faith in God such a commodity? Would we remain pure in spirit? Would we remain pure in body? We never know what we would do to survive until that day arrives, though we might plan and prepare. God certainly wants us to remain faithful to him and to place our trust in him regardless, as those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. But he was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis and so did not survive the war.

If Lena was the survivalist, Tully was the smuggler. He may have arrived innocent, but the war changed him just as it changed Lena. It showed him how to amass money and corrupted him. Money is amoral, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10). Tully is a clear example of this truth. Though he says, “the war was the best thing that ever happened to me,” in fact it actually ruined him, causing his degradation and fall.

Then there is Jake, the good American. He is the only American that cares about the murder. But we never fully understand why he cares. He offers little of moral note. And the film is not entitled “The Good American” but The Good German.

So to the good German. Who is the good German? The film seeks to address this, but instead asks a more pertinent question: were there any good Germans during the war? If all Germans knew what was going on, were they all guilty to some degree? If they committed war crimes under orders, were they responsible? Other films, such as The Reader, have addressed questions of culpability for the bad Germans. Those that actually stood up and called Hitler to account faced the same fate as the non-Aryans? Like Bonhoeffer, they were typically jailed or killed.

The good German in this film is no Bonhoeffer. He seems anything but good, and in the end the question of culpability or forgiveness is forgotten in the meanderings of a film noir plot.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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