Like Todd Haynes' gorgeous Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven, Steven Soderbergh's experimental drama The Good German isn't merely an attempt to pay tribute to Hollywood's past, but to recreate it as meticulously as possible. In a technical sense, Soderbergh's efforts to mimic the craftsmanship of house directors like Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) are even more rigorous than Haynes'; to capture the look and feel of post-war Hollywood cinema, he imposed Dogme-like restrictions on the equipment that could be used for photography and sound, and had his actors perform in a more old-fashioned, theatrical style. However, the key difference between Soderbergh and Haynes has less to do with fidelity than feeling: Both of their films are uncanny and transporting, but Haynes' deep connection to florid Sirkian melodrama couldn't be further from Soderbergh's clinical detachment. As a result, The Good German is chilly around the heart, but equally infused with knowing sophistication and a surprising amount of depth.
With his dashing looks and unfussy leading-man confidence, George Clooney has always been a throwback to another era, so he fits in perfectly as an American military correspondent sent to cover the historic Potsdam Conference in Berlin. The end of the war has brought with it an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty in the city, and the absence of order has given rise to a bustling black market and a whole new set of dangers. Bringing a sinister edge to his trademark aw-shucks innocence, Tobey Maguire plays Clooney's escort, an Army motor pool lackey who has happily exploited the market for cheap sex and other vices. Through Maguire's dealings, Clooney comes into contact with former lover Cate Blanchett, a German Jew who's had to make some chilling compromises in order to survive.
Channeling Marlene Dietrich with the same natural aplomb that she brought to Katherine Hepburn in 2004's The Aviator, Blanchett plays a sort of tragic seductress, ruined by her instincts for self-preservation. It isn't until the end of the movie that the full brunt of her courage and sacrifice becomes achingly clear. During this period of post-war reckoning, The Good German quietly suggests that moral compromises were made on all sides and that parsing out the good guys from the bad guys was not such a clear-cut task. In that sense, the film has more in common with the romantic cynicism of Curtiz's Casablanca and The Third Man than other period works that commented on the war. With a few self-conscious exceptions, Soderbergh makes an earnest attempt to return to that place and time in both history and American filmmaking, and his risk-taking pays fascinating dividends.