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Years Past

The Good German

(Warner Bros.)

A war correspondent for The New Republic, in the Berlin of July 1945, gets beaten up four times in pursuit of a story but nonetheless keeps going. That is one way The Good German could be described. Of course this is hardly all that goes on in Paul Attanasio's screenplay, based on Joseph Kanon's novel; still, I did enjoy seeing George Clooney play a colleague of mine with such magnificent powers of recuperation.

Clooney is Jake Geismer, who had been working for a newspaper syndicate in Berlin before the war and has returned, for TNR, to cover the Potsdam conference, attended by Truman, Stalin, andChurchill. Other matters interfere with his work, beginning withJake's discovery that the driver assigned to him by the Army is nowthe lover of his pre-war girlfriend. This blatant coincidence—I can't guess the statistical probability—is only the first step that leads away from the bleakness of postwar Berlin toward Movieland, where a lot of bombed buildings are just tristful background.

Ever since Rossellini's harsh Germany Year Zero (1947) and Wilder's wryly grim A Foreign Affair (1948), the sight of the smashed city has brought different responses at different times—the first surge of vengeance, the reality of destruction, the eventual slow regard for other human beings, the question of ultimate responsibility, the verdict on the entire human race. To see that devastated city again, sixty years on (created here with a blend of newsreels and settings), now has a new effect. The wan chance in 1945 for a fresh start through the uniting of nations has become a wan joke.

But this is to aggrandize The Good German, which doesn't use stony fact as an increment of good fiction in the way that Graham Greene and John Le Carre have done. The battered city becomes scenery for a flabby thriller. Through Jake's driver and the successively shared girlfriend, Jake gets tangled in a more personal and dangerous story than the Potsdam conference. (The inevitable warning line "You don't know what you're getting into" is growled at Jake several times by taciturn big shots whom he interviews.) Nonetheless he persists with several officers, American and Soviet, searching for something that is not quite clear to him. The search has little cumulative excitement—it is a series of conversationsrather than a crescendo—and it finishes with a secret that is pretty close to predictable.

The director, Steven Soderbergh, said that he wanted to make a 1940s film about a 1940s subject, but he seems uncomfortable—an observer of the period rather than a native inside looking out. There is almost a hint of the patronizing in his treatment. And, somewhat heavy-handedly, he underscores his period tour with visual references to The Third Man and Casablanca. (The easiest period touch: the Americans smoke incessantly.) The cinematography, which Soderbergh did himself under the name Peter Andrews, is in black-and-white that is far inferior to the best of that time. Most of the lighting of faces is either tabloid flashes or, especially with the girlfriend, sentimentalized fake "portrait"shots.

Cate Blanchett, a long way from the Katharine Hepburn she played in The Aviator, tries to make a more coarsely worn Marlene Dietrich out of the girlfriend, a woman who has apparently bedded her way through the war, struggling to hold on to some shreds of her soul. But Blanchett shows us what she wants to do rather than doing it. Tobey Maguire, who plays the slimy driver, gets on my nerves. Jack Thompson, as a ubiquitous congressman, is unquestionably ubiquitous.

Still, I could have managed to bear all the film's shortcomings if it weren't for Clooney. Where was he during the making of this film? His face is there, he knows his lines, he moves as needed, but any traces of the intelligence and rapport, the subtlety and understanding, that have marked his best work are excruciatingly missing. Clooney behaves as if he discovered after he had committed to the film that he really didn't like the script as much as he thought he did but would go through with it anyway. The result is puppetry.

I have never written a "Ten Best" list at the end of a year, because I think the number is arbitrary—why not fourteen or six?—and because "best" is too imperial. No critic is likely to have seen absolutely all of the films that have some claim to attention and thus cannot make completely fair choices. "Favorite films" would be more apt, without a statutory number.

But this year I lean toward some sort of account because of the recurrent groans in the press about the sorry state of film. Thedisparity between these laments and my own experience is startling. Looking back through the last twelve months, I discovered that,though I hardly saw all the possible candidates, I had found eighteen films that are decisively and memorably of value to an intelligent viewer. They are: Brokeback Mountain, Cache, Fateless, Friends With Money, L'Enfant, Down in the Valley, Only Human, Gabrielle, Edmond, The Bridesmaid, The Illusionist, Old Joy, The Queen, Climates, Flags of Our Fathers, Copying Beethoven, The History Boys, The Secret Life of Words. (Comment on each of these titles, if wanted, is in the TNR archives online.) Eighteen! People who read more novels and see more theater than I do these days will know if they encountered eighteen equally interesting books or playslast year. (And I have named only fictional works, not even such documentaries as the ones about Tony Kushner and Robert Wilson.) The film year for me has been just the opposite of what it has been, apparently, for some others.

Of course they are looking principally at Hollywood, and my list has only six American pictures. But don't films from abroad and from independents affect any fair conspectus of the art? In fact, my own concern is that we have fewer foreign films than we used to get: expenses have diminished film importing. Isn't the viewer of film entitled—obliged—to be as cosmopolitan as an art critic or musiccritic? (Subtitles certainly facilitate it.) There is an old argument that people who live in major cities can't really judge thestate of film because they have more program choices than those who live elsewhere. This argument no longer holds. Tapes and DVDs and television outlets make many foreign and independent pictures available in Podunk, often with a time lapse of less than a year.

So despite the recurrent croakings in the press, with all its mourning for the "Golden Age" of the past, I am grateful to 2006 for its bounty, and I can't help looking ahead to 2007. In the film world, anyway.