Director Steven Soderbergh has created a loving tribute to the films of the 1940’s that is more accomplished than effective. It is such a meticulous re-creation of the techniques and technology of the era that it seems jarring to see contemporary faces and hear four-letter words. From the very first moment, where the film seems to jump a bit before settling into the projector gate, every detail from the font for the opening credits to the score by Thomas Newman (son of 1940’s movie soundtrack maestro Alfred Newman) and the cinematography and editing (done by Soderburgh himself under pseudonyms).
All of this is intended to create the mood and setting of Berlin just as WWII was ending. The war was already over in Europe and Berlin was occupied by the conquering forces, including the United States and the Soviet Union. New Republic journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney), arrives to cover the Potsdam Conference, with heads of state Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill Clement Atlee meeting to discuss post-war arrangements in Europe and strategies for the continuing war against Japan. His driver is Tully (Tobey Maguire), something of a wheeler-dealer who is not above lifting a wallet or buying forged papers to get someone out of the country.
That someone turns out to be Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), widow of a mathematician who died in the war. With no other options, she has become a prostitute, with Tully her most frequent customer. It turns out that Jake and Lena knew each other before the war, when she worked for him as a stringer and they were romantically involved. And it turns out that they are connected again through a murder that brings them together again in a web of conflicting loyalties and values that play out in their relationship and in the political trade-offs around them. How do you decide who is culpable after a war? An entire population cannot be tried and punished. Should the focus be on what they have done in the past or on what they can do to help shape the future?
George Clooney and Cate Blanchett fit their 40’s wardrobe and dialogue well. But despite some sharply drawn parallels to current events, it feels more like a stunt than a story. In part, that may be due to our familiarity with the actors. Those whose faces beam down on us from magazine covers can act in period films without disturbing out ability to suspend disbelief in part because those films, while set in the past, are made in the current style of scene-setting and acting. There is something jarring about seeing the familiar contemporary faces clamped into old-fashioned static set-ups in front of rear projections. It feels like a film school exercise and that interferes with its substantial and very provocative agenda.
Parents should know that this movie includes intense peril and violence. There are references to the Holocaust (which, at the time this movie takes place, was only beginning to be uncovered.) Characters are injured and killed. They also smoke, drink, and use strong language. There are explicit sexual references and situations, including prostitution.
Families who see this movie should talk about the confliction priorities and values the characters had to reconcile. A “Good German” is an expression referring to someone who goes along and abides by the rules, no matter how offensive they are. Who in this movie does this term apply to? Families may want to find out about historical characters like Werner Van Braun, whose stories inspired this screenplay. Families may want to learn more about different ways of achieving a sense of justice following war or other massive change, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the current war trials of world figures like Saddam Hussein.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Third Man and Judgment at Nuremberg, which deal with some of the same issues raised by this film. Every family should see the brilliant and hugely influential Casablanca, which helped inspire this film as well. Blind Spot – Hitler’s Secretary is a documentary interview with the woman who worked for Hitler through his last days in the bunker.