Much has been written about Steven Soderbergh’s latest film The Good German and its obvious debt to 1942’s Casablanca, to the point where one could be forgiven if it seems that Soderbergh is the first film maker in nearly 65 years to draw inspiration from the classic film. But the classic story of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and their less-than-a-hill-of-beans amount of troubles have been influencing filmmakers for six and a half decades, even to the point of being out rightly remade by Bollywood (Armaan, 1981) and Pamela Anderson (Barb Wire, 1996).
The Good German is another of Steven Soderbergh’s more experimental movies, one of the films where she stretches his creative muscles in different and unexpected ways than when he is making more straightforward cineplex fare such as Erin Brockovich (2000) or Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Here, Soderbergh is making in a film in the grand old tradition of the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s, and not in terms of thematic content or storylines. Instead, he used filming techniques common to the time – lack of sophisticated zoom lenses on the camera and more primitive sound recording techniques – to help create the stark atmosphere of Berlin in the months following the fall of the Third Reich.
Captain Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is a military journalist arriving in Berlin to cover the Pottsdam Conference. However, when his driver Tully (Tobey Maguire) is found murdered, his own investigations bring him into contact with his former lover Lena (Cate Blanchett). Lena’s secret – a husband (Christian Oliver) previously unknown about by Jake hiding in the city, wanted by numerous governments for things he learned while in the employ of the Nazi rocket program – definitely recall the secrets harbored by Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa. Further ramming the Casablanca parallel home is a plot thread concerning travel papers that will allow one easy egress from Berlin.
What follows is a noir-ish maze of cross dealings and betrayals of trust and emotions. Clooney turns in sterling work as a journalist who is trying hard to hold onto his ethical core while he sees the world’s sense of morality changing around him. Lena’s re-entrance into his life sets his world askew. Unraveling the mystery surrounding Tully’s murder, Jake discovers that the woman he thought he was in love with is much different from the woman he is dealing with now. But did something happen to her during the time they were separated or was her love for him merely a façade?
By the time we arrive at the film’s finale, set at a suspiciously familiar looking air strip, the audience has discovered that Soderbergh has effectively taken Casablanca and turned it on its head, instilling it with its own powerful message. Instead of an ending which tells us of the nobility of sacrifice, we are shown that no matter how hard we try, we may never escape the specter of the wicked deeds of our past done in order to survive. Casablanca’s “We’ll always have Paris,” reminded audiences why one should fight. The Good German’s “You can never get out of Berlin,” warns us that we can never escape the consequences of our actions, no matter how good the intentions were. It’s not the start, but rather the ending of a beautiful friendship.