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Who Killed "The Good German"?

by Anthony Kaufman
February 12, 2007 2:24 AM
7 Comments
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For the last month, I've been wanting to see Steven Soderbergh's post-WWII neo-noir "The Good German" a second time. For a while, my neighborhood theater in Brooklyn advertised the film on its marquee as coming soon. But it never arrived, summarily replaced by the Oscar contenders of the moment. Internet searches showed that the film would expand on Jan. 19, a date that saw the film grow to a paltry 66 theaters around the country. And as of last weekend, it has vanished completely from the New York area.

Sure, the film isn't Soderbergh's best, but with an intriguing aesthetic experiment at its core, a sumptuously nasty performance by Tobey Maguire, an Oscar-nominated Max-Steiner-esque score, and a bravura climactic sequence set in a crowded street that's equal parts "Third Man" and "Breathless," the film should have been given a better chance.

At the Berlin Film Festival, where "The Good German" premiered on Friday, Soderbergh admited that the film was a "strange hybrid," according to reports. "Its approach to the narrative in terms of the momentum is very American; its approach to its characters and its approach to morality is much more European," he said.

An unsettling combination, perhaps, but one not devoid of merit. As someone who is invested somewhat in Soderbergh's career (I edited this book of interviews), I can't help but think he got a raw deal -- and most U.S. critics and audiences have missed the point of the film's mission. Soderbergh isn't out to recreate "Casablanca"; he's out to make its evil twin -- a corrosive, icy version of "A Foreign Affair" with Cate Blanchett's Marlene Dietrich having sunk that much deeper into the gutter.

Who killed the film? Here are the culprits:

1. Manohla Dargis, Anthony Lane, etc. -- Most critics lambasted the film, unfairly and viciously, I might add. The New Yorker's Lane seemed personally affronted by the fact that the movie wasn't "Germany Year Zero," but the comparison is entirely unfair. The New York Times' Dargis, likewise, wanted to see a magical Hollywood ode, and when the film wasn't what she was expecting, she savaged it. When Salon.com 's Stephanie Zacharek criticizes the movie, saying it "feels like a hit to the stomach," that's the point, isn't it?

2. Warner Bros. -- With George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire and a slick ad campaign, audiences would have come out to the film, no matter what critics said. My mom in Orange County wanted to see it, but it never reached her. In the dead-end weeks of January, there was plenty of space to open "Good German" wider, but with mediocre Oscar-contenders trying to stake their claim, the WB backed down, afraid to take a risk on a film that wasn't a slam dunk.

3. "The Good Shepherd" -- I haven't seen "Good Shepherd," so I can't say if it's a better or worse film, though most reviews say it's okay, at best. But after the critics and studios left "Good German" for dead, of course, the other "Good" movie was going to take the pole position in theaters.

4. You -- Why didn't you folks back your man, Soderbergh, one of the more defiant independent-minded renegades working inside the Hollywood system? If auteurism isn't dead, the failure of Soderbergh's audience to see what he was trying to do in "The Good German" shows it's definitely on life support. I guess there's always "Ocean's 13"....

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7 Comments

  • Rii | February 15, 2007 11:45 AMReply

    I found this via google alerts I get about The Good German and I must say I enjoyed reading this a lot. I live in Finland and I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.
    I'm a huge movie fan and collector, I'm also a big Tobey Maguire fan. I hope the critisism the movie has gotten in the States doesn't affect to movie's release here in Finland, because I really want to see it.
    Anyway, thank you for this, your blog entry was a real eye-opener.

  • Thom Powers | February 14, 2007 9:40 AMReply

    Note how quick you are to lambast the "critics" for their Soderbergh review, then accept their assessment that Shepherd was okay "at best." I think Shepherd is a more memorable film than German. Actually, I was quite prepared to skip German, feeling that Soderbergh misses more than he hits (I paid $ for The Limey and I want it back). But Graham Fuller (I think it was Fuller) made such a strong case for it in his year end round up, that I gave it a try. No regrets. But no resonance either.

  • InsomniacFreak | February 14, 2007 1:13 AMReply

    Thank you for venting these sentiments in your blog. I've been equally frustrated at the inability to see this film. It's absurd that a film starring Blanchett, Clooney and Maguire would yield a measly $1 million at the US Box office. There have been a lot of "experiments" that have been well received by critics and. "The Good German" obviously wasn't one of them but I can't recall an "experiment" that was so easily toppled before people even had a chance to view it. The critics must be collectively congratulating themselves for the demise of this film. I hope other daring filmmakers take notice in the spinelessness of Warner Brothers and pursue their projects elsewhere. Unreal how WB can be so utterly unsupportive of a project like this with a director and stars of this caliber. I mean, what were they afraid of by widening the distribution? I've never seen a company more willing to take a bath on a film and to ensure it's own failure. I was very, very disappointed to not get to see "The Good German". I knew what it was and what to expect. I knew I wasn't seeing Casablanca. I wanted to experience the gorgeous cinematography on the big screen, not in my living room. I was so anxiously looking forward to that " sumptuously nasty performance by Tobey Maguire." I've never put much credence in critics opinion.

  • Johl Smilowski | February 13, 2007 10:27 AMReply

    The one theatre town (Pop. 1,700) of Sisters, Oregon, U.S.A. was scheduled to show both "The Good German" and "The Good Shepherd". I have not seen either. - J.H.G.S.

  • Ted Hicks | February 13, 2007 7:02 AMReply

    You couldn't have come into Manhattan to see the film? It was here. I saw it.

  • anthony | February 13, 2007 2:32 AMReply

    Yes, I thought of that, too. Sure, Soderbergh deserves some blame, but a little show-offery is more interesting to watch than 90% of the crap that comes out of Hollywood. And call me pretentious, but I like "Bubble," too.

  • Joshua Rothkopf | February 12, 2007 9:42 AMReply

    I think you forgot one culprit: Steven Soderbergh. Why he decided to take a sharp novel (and fine adaptation by Attanasio) and turn it into a pretentious, airless art exercise just for the sake of personal show-offery will stand as his most out-of-touch decision since, er, Bubble. The film is utter snobbery; audiences rejected it correctly, even with Tobey and George.

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