The Good German, the novel by Joseph Kanon, is a first-class thriller that makes some serious points. The Good German, the movie by Steven Soderbergh, isn't and doesn't.
Books and movies are different animals, and a fan is naive to think that the strengths of one can always be translated into the other. Director Soderbergh, in my view, in order to achieve two objectives doesn't even try. The first objective, notable only if the viewer hasn't read the book, is to change substantial elements of the plot and the characters for what seems no greater purpose than to create star roles for George Clooney and Tobey Maguire and "acting moments" for the two of them and Cate Blanchett. He also seems, as so many Hollywood factory philosophers seem compelled to do, to want to make obvious points about how awful some government actions can be, how hideous "end-justifies-the-means" activities are and how noble is the average guy, played by a Hollywood uber-star, of course, in resisting all this.
As for that second objective and much, much worse, Soderbergh used The Good German as a toy. He said he wanted to make the movie in the style of the old Forties movies. For the most part he shot everything on stage sets, used the old camera lenses, insisted on boom mikes for sound recording and played with the harsh light contrasts familiar from movies like The Third Man and the B-level noirs photographed by John Alton. He even was his own cinematographer and editor (under pseudonyms). What he came up with is a stilted drama so harshly lit that the movie is unpleasant to watch. The movie is a collection of deep, deep contrasts that give washed-out brightness, dead white faces and shadows so black anything might be happening. This must have been great fun for Soderbergh to create but it's hell for the movie viewer to sit through for nearly two hours.
The story, set in Berlin in 1945 when the Potsdam Conference is just starting, is highly visual. There are desperate civilians everywhere, GIs living high, and bombed-out ruins. War criminals are hunted by both the Soviets and the Americans, not to punish but, if they were rocket scientists, to bring back home. Intrigue and corruption bubble just below the rotten surface of the city.
Jake Geisner, played by George Clooney, finds himself up to his neck in intrigue when he finds a former mistress, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) and is assigned a GI driver, Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire). Then a GI is murdered, which leads Geisner into some dangerous situations and some moral conflicts. Unfortunately, among all the specious changes Soderbergh makes in the story-line, the worst is the conclusion. Instead of a satisfying bit of justice served up with irony, we have an irrelevant bit of knowledge tossed at us that serves no purpose but to create another acting moment for Clooney and Blanchett.
Even if I hadn't read the book this movie would have been a disappointment. It's an auteur's dream of a director's Hollywood clout, but gone bad. Soderbergh, to my mind, is a cautionary tale of talent being indulged, corrupted and wasted. I can't think of a movie of his I've seen since Out of Sight and The Limey that has interested me. Amid the debris is the performance of Cate Blanchett. She looks awful in Soderbergh's unforgiving lighting and it's obvious at times that she's trying to channel Marlene Dietrich. She needed a director, not a cinematographer, to guide her. Still, when she finally settles down into the part Blanchett gives a fine performance.
For those who like to read thrillers and are intrigued with Germany right after the end of WWII, you won't do better than Ross Thomas' The Eighth Dwarf. And for those who want to see how dramatic lighting can really be used, try The Third Man or some of Alton's noirs.