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April 23, 2007 | by  | in Film |
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The Good German

There were many good reasons to see The Good German. A substantial part of my film education involved watching Alfred Hitchcock dodge the production code (an archaic moral code imposed by censors in the 1950s and before that prohibited swearing, nudity, kisses lasting longer than three seconds, or even showing two people in bed together unless they each had one foot on the floor at all times) in ingenious ways over and over again.

Instead of showing sex on screen, he would show a train entering a tunnel in North by Northwest, or follow a shot of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly making out with a shot of a fireworks display. He also engineered what was at the time the longest on-screen kiss in Notorious, by having Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant’s lips lose contact every three seconds, which would have pissed off the censors no end. So when Steven Soderbergh (director of possibly my favourite film, Out of Sight) announced he would put together a film with only the technical gear available in the 1940s, but with today’s sex and swearing, I practically tripped over myself getting to the cinema.

There are a lot of things to like about this film. Cate Blanchett is superb as the Bergmanesque heroine, tainted by the way she survived under the Nazis. George Clooney’s American officer in love with Blanchett is much better than his German.

The plot stands up well, with enough twists and plenty of plausibility. Tom Newman’s score is simultaneously authentic and fitting (one thing that bugs me about old movies is the often garish music). And the use of fuck in an old skool setting where the camera lens is never quite in focus, the sound system can’t pick up whispers so the actors had to speak clearly, and where Blanchett’s shoulder pads take up half the frame, is simply stunning.

But on the flipside, Casablanca, Notorious, and The Third Man (the rubble of Berlin here echoes that of divided Vienna) are great films, and to hold up The Good German against “here’s looking at you kid,” the chemistry between Grant and Bergman, or the sheer sinister atmosphere haunting Vienna means that it will fall short. The Good German is a good film, but not a great film, as it simply does not have that indescribable quality which makes great films compelling.

STEVEN SODERBERGH

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