The first scene of Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German," which is set in Berlin at the end of World War II, instantly calls to mind Roberto Rossellini's "Germany Year Zero." The last scene is a dead ringer for "Casablanca." Book-ended between the neo-realist beginning and the iconic ending is a film noir done in the classic style. Using vintage lenses, black-and-white film (high-contrast color stock with the color pulled out, but close enough), Hollywood back lots, rear-projection, expressionistic angles, an old-fashioned score, a morally compromised hero, an alluring femme fatale and a very bleak view of the world, Soderbergh has made a movie set in 1945 that looks as if it were made in 1945. Some of it was, even. The director has included footage of Berlin after the war shot by Billy Wilder and William Wyler, for verisimilitude and (why not?) good luck.
It's a curious arc for "The Good German" to follow, though -- from a brutal, quasi-documentary to a rainy tarmac through a Vaseline-coated lens -- even if things do end on a bit of a down beat. The movie unfolds in a bombed-out city divvied up like a bank-robbery haul between the Americans, the Russians, the French and the British. Despite the best efforts of all involved, some of the biggest spoils are still on the loose. While military lawyers sift through scientific records to figure out who will stand trial for war crimes, the Russians are kidnapping nuclear physicists in the streets, before the Americans can get to them with offers of California tract houses and a side of cars.
It's into this quagmire that a rather romantically inclined, morally confused reporter for the New Republic named Jake Geismer (George Clooney) steps into, having been issued a uniform, a driver and an official story by the Army. Jake has returned to Berlin for the first time since the war began to cover the Potsdam Conference. Before he left, he was running the Associated Press' Berlin bureau and having an affair with a married stringer named Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Soon, Jake discovers that Lena is now the girlfriend of his driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), a baby-faced corporal and thuggish racketeer whose gee-whiz demeanor plays like a long, sardonic joke about the representation of baby-faced corporals in 1940s war pictures. Jake has come back to Berlin to find Lena, but all Lena wants to do is get out of town. Soon there's a murder, which Jake sets out to investigate. He wants to know, but he doesn't want to know. You want to say, "Forget it, Jake. It's Kreuzberg."
The last time Clooney played the mark, he was fat and bearded in "Syriana." Here all he needs is Maguire's Tully, whose easy malevolence pegs him instantly. Maguire is fabulous as the kind of kid who can rhapsodize about his mom's apple pie (pie you somehow doubt she even makes) and then offer you an hour with his "girlfriend" if you're interested. At first, the unexpected shock of language that would have never made it past Production Code censors and a sex scene that would have made their heads explode feels inexplicably elating. And its not just the naughty bits that make it seem so naughty. In a few quick strokes, Soderbergh and screenwriter Paul Attanasio (working from a novel by Joseph Kanon) sketch a convincing scenario in which it is technically not possible for the good guys to win a war because good guys don't fight them. Or they don't start them, anyway.
Graham Greene (who, incidentally, wrote the postwar noir classic "The Third Man," which was set in Vienna in 1949) described the problem inherent in suggesting such things in the years leading up to, during and following the war. His first movie script, which he wrote in 1937 while he was a film critic for the Spectator, was an adaptation of a John Galsworthy story about a murderer who kills himself, and an innocent man who hangs for the crime. A fine sensationalist plot, but the British Board of Film Censors disagreed. "They forbade suicide, and forbade the failure of English justice." You get the feeling that this is just the sort of historical wrong Soderbergh and Attanasio have set out to right, and that it's not for nothing they're doing it now.
Fortunately, the movie doesn't bog itself down in making comparisons, but it does get mired in its obsession with its own style. The further along it gets, the harder it is to believe that Jake and Lena ever had a past together, or that the memory of this past would continue to bind them. Jake and Lena are made up of so many contrasting layers they wouldn't be out of place on a pastry cart, but you can't really imagine them in love with each other. Maybe Jake's desire to help her stems from an oddly placed guilt, even as he suspects there's much about what Lena's done since he last saw her that he doesn't know. But ultimately he doesn't want to know. No one really does, even if choosing not to know tends to cancel out all the moral choices, from the little ones all the way up to the big ones.
MPAA rating: R for language, violence and sexual content. Run time: 1 hour, 45 min. At Pacific's Grove, 189 the Grove Drive (323) 692-0829; Loews Broadway, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica (310) 458-1506, Ext. 706.