Steven Soderbergh changed everything.
Well, more or less, and it wasn't all him, but still: In 1989, Soderbergh kicked off the indie film craze that would change the course of film in the 1990s. Showing up to a then-tiny film fest called Sundance with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the 26-year-old director proceeded to decimate the Hollywood status quo. The astonishing success of the brilliant, low-budget, and independent Sex, Lies, and Videotape quickly made the film into Sundance's flagship offering—and legitimized and popularized independent cinema.
Ever since, Soderbergh's career has been as interesting as his first big success— balancing experimental fare (Eros, Bubble, Solaris) with sure-fire studio blockbusters (Ocean's Eleven and Twelve, Traffic, Erin Brockovich), Soderbergh, alongside frequent collaborator George Clooney, has also produced several scathingly intelligent films that married the studio system with his independent roots (Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly). And with The Good German, Soderbergh has gone in an entirely new direction—glorifying films of the same studio system he upset in 1989.
Set in 1946, The Good German—based on the novel by Joseph Kanon—is mired in broken buildings, shattered streets, and rocky rubble. This decimated, post-urban setting is post-war Berlin, and caught in this physical, emotional, and political chaos is Captain Jake Geismer (Clooney), a military journalist who finds himself at the heart of a mystery—one starting with his opportunistic chauffeur (Tobey Maguire), spreading to his shadowy German ex (Cate Blanchett), and burrowing itself deep into postwar politics.
The bad news is that while The Good German is certainly decent, its plot and characters are nothing extraordinary—everything's good here, and entertaining, and smart, but narrative-wise, the film lacks the punch of Soderbergh's best stuff. But there's good news, too, and a lot of it: For any Soderbergh fan, The Good German's still flat-out fascinating. Soderbergh's painstakingly processed the film in black and white—shooting, editing, and scoring the film just as actual film noir from the '40s would have been—including fixed, close camera angles, harsh lighting of glowing whites and dark shadows, old stock footage, rear-projection tricks. It's a gimmick, yeah, and true, The Good German wouldn't be that great without it. But sometimes—at least in the hands of a director as talented and unpredictable as Soderbergh—a gimmick is more than enough to justify the price of admission.