Degraded Dupes Steven Soderbergh

Film still for Degraded Dupes Steven Soderbergh

Ever since sex, lies, and videotape Steven Soderbergh has countered success with perverse choices. But his strange retro-looking film The Good German pushes incompatible styles to breaking point. By Amy Taubin

Since receiving Best Director Academy Awards nominations in 2000 for both Traffic and Erin Brockovich - he beat himself to win with Traffic - Steven Soderbergh has been on a film-making tear that rivals the speed records of Godard in the 1960s and Fassbinder in the 1970s. Soderbergh has directed seven features between 2001 and 2006, including The Good German (opening in Britain this month) and Ocean's Thirteen (due out in summer). As Peter Andrews he was director of photography and main camera operator on all of them, and as Mary Ann Bernard he was editor for three. In addition he directed, photographed, edited and co-produced K Street, a ten-week fiction/documentary hybrid series for HBO (each 30-minute episode completed and aired in a single week). And with Section 8, the company he set up with George Clooney, which has now closed, he co-produced or executive produced about 20 more films.

What makes this notable (and unlike the careers of Godard and Fassbinder) is that he has carried out this marathon within the belly of the beast, using the power and money of the studios and of their 'independent' divisions - which owe their existence partially to the out-of-the-blue success of his debut feature sex, lies, and videotape (1989). Something was happening back then in the waning years of the Reagan/Bush 1980s, and though the Mr Jones's and occasional Ms Jones who run the industry didn't know what it was, they suspected that the young director, anointed by Sundance, Cannes and the box office, just might. And indeed sex, lies, and videotape captured the guilt, barely repressed rage and sense of impotence of a middle class that was alienated every which way. But it also showed that, despite the mess we were making of it, the world was a shimmering, lovely place and that one might find, in that fragile loveliness, some kind of connection.

Soderbergh, who has probably never encountered an expectation he didn't try to foil, responded to his sudden success with four oddball features (Kafka, 1991; King of the Hill, 1993; The Underneath, 1995; Schizopolis, 1996) and a film documentation of one of Spalding Gray's most anguished monologues, Gray's Anatomy (1996) - all of them lacking the sexiness and finger-on-the-zeitgeist assurance of his first film. Schizopolis, however, has become something of a cult item. A home movie about a disintegrating marriage starring the director and his ex-wife, it is the kind of revelation by prevarication that makes psychoanalysts' eyes glaze over. The humour is self-lacerating, the mise en scène so punishingly ugly that it's next to unbearable on the big screen. On DVD it's a different experience, deliriously so when one watches it with Soderbergh's hilarious commentary track, which adds a freewheeling schizoid layer to the proceedings.

Just when it seemed as if he'd used up all the good will that had come his way, Soderbergh scored two critical successes, Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999), still his most graceful and romantic films. The former made an actor and icon out of a TV hottie (Clooney) who had been floundering since his transition to the big screen - and suggested to Hollywood that despite his chameleon-like modus operandi Soderbergh might be able to deliver the kind of pop genre picture that makes big bucks. When he then followed the award-winning Traffic and Brockovich with the lighting-in-a-bottle blockbuster Ocean's Eleven (2001) he became for a moment the industry's most alluring director. It didn't hurt that he was frugal, a workaholic, and that stars were anxious to be in his movies.

Once again Soderbergh countered his industry success by turning experimental. Miramax, which had released sex, lies, and videotape, was only too happy to provide the $2 million financing for Full Frontal (2002), a multi-strand narrative that captures the sense of dislocation and isolation peculiar to Los Angeles and which was shot on video, not yet a medium of choice. 20th Century Fox went even further out on a limb with Solaris (2002) - loosely based on Tarkovsky's 1972 anti-sci-fi, anti-Soviet melodrama - in which romantic obsession is played out (or, more exactly, mulled over) in chill, blue outer space. Both films have their critical supporters (this writer among them) but ­neither had discernable audience appeal. The $60 million Solaris, which Soderbergh felt at the time was his most personal film (in addition to directing, shooting and editing he also wrote the script), was his first big box-office disaster. "What will you do," I asked him in an interview, "if Solaris is not a commercial success?" "Fast track Ocean's Twelve," he replied.

Doing the right thing

And so he did. While it lacked the surprise and brio of Eleven, Ocean's Twelve was nevertheless a huge enough hit to make Thirteen inevitable. Soderbergh now had a franchise at Warners and he used the power it gave him to persuade the studio to finance The Good German, a project nearly as strange as Solaris and which a few years ago he described to me as "almost as personal". Its $32 million budget was probably smaller than the amount a less disciplined director would have added to the cost of any one of the Ocean's films. But what probably gave Warners confidence that it wouldn't lose money, besides the presence of Clooney in the leading role, was the pitch Soderbergh is still using in interviews: "It's a World War II picture with the kind of sex and violence that wasn't permitted under the production code in the 1940s."

The Good German is adapted from Joseph Kanon's novel, which is set in Berlin in 1945 and combines elements of a military-occupation procedural, an espionage thriller and a romance into a humanistic moral tale. Kanon posits not only one 'Good German' but three (two of them minor characters) and also one Good American. In the novel the central characters survive the horrors of the war and the Holocaust with their moral centres intact, thus offering readers the possibility that were they in a similar position, they too would do the right thing. In Soderbergh's film there are no good Germans and no good Americans either, though Jake, the American journalist played by Clooney, is, at worst, a blinded fool and a punching bag. In any case, viewers looking for a comfortable point of identification or a bit of uplift won't find it here. The film is a toxic Casablanca, and in case we've missed the point - as well we might, considering that Paul Attanasio's script is incoherent and totally lacking in dramatic logic - Soderbergh shoves it in our faces with a final scene that replicates the one in Curtiz's 1942 sentimental classic.

Except that Lena (Cate Blanchett), the woman boarding the plane, is a piece of damaged goods, and Jake, the bewildered guy on the tarmac in the rain, is lucky to be rid of her. And since they've never convinced us that any chemistry exists between them; or that they had a romantic history before the world turned so ugly that romance was no longer possible; or that there's any logic or substance to them as characters; or that, as actors, they're performing in the same movie, it's hard to give a damn. Which, given that The Good German is an extremely perverse exercise, may be exactly the effect Soderbergh wanted.

Fact and illusion

Soderbergh developed The Good German over several years. He first considered making it as an animated film - in part, he told me when I interviewed him in December, "because it was something that you absolutely would not associate with being animated." He also had the idea of digitally matting (green screening) live actors on to a background of archival footage of the ruins of Berlin in 1945. An account of this phase of development, which in the end proved too costly, can be found in an interview with Kenn Rabin, a researcher on the film, at The third idea was not simply to make a period film set in 1945, but to make it as it would have been made in 1945. "We finally gave Warners the option of either an animated film or a black-and-white live-action film shot as a classic 1940s film would have been. Which is really not fair - like offering them the gun or the knife. They went with the live action."

To be precise, The Good German is not a black-and-white film but a black-and-white-looking film that's shot on colour stock and either chemically drained of colour during processing or digitally drained during post-production. For a variety of reasons - one of them Soderbergh's preference since Traffic for an image in which the bright parts are almost blown out - it looks less like a 1940s film as it would have looked in the 1940s and more like the kind of degraded dupe of such a film we're used to seeing today. But in any event The Good German is always interesting to watch and occasionally beautiful enough to make one momentarily forget its narrative failings. There are also a couple of sequences - most notably a chase through a parade of allied forces - that remind us of how dazzlingly inventive Soderbergh's direction can be. As for the graphic sex and violence, it is brutish and almost entirely incidental, though no more incidental than any other action in a movie where almost every sequence plays like a non-sequitur.

The film was shot mostly on sets. Philip Messina, Soderbergh's longtime production designer, ingeniously creates the landscape of a ruined city while Soderbergh's use of archival footage as punctuation and in matte shots enhances that old-time-movie feeling of hovering between illusion and fact. Soderbergh gave himself a couple of rules: no zoom lenses or body mikes; single-camera coverage only, with fixed focal-length lenses, favouring slightly wide-angle ones. But the lighting doesn't quite simulate either that of classic 1940s studio films or of film noir, the radically dissimilar styles Soderbergh gave himself the liberty of mixing as they would not have been mixed in the 1940s, since each expressed a view of the world that was in opposition to the other. There's no way to take bits of a classic studio project like Curtiz's Casablanca, graft on the atmosphere of even a not very noirish noir like Reed's The Third Man, and end up with a movie that's coherent in either meaning or form. (Casablanca and The Third Man are the films Soderbergh and Warners' publicity department use as points of reference.)

At the risk of labouring a point: a film like Casablanca presents the world as a rational place where sometimes the wrong people suffer but good triumphs over evil, as do freedom, justice and the American way - and their Hollywood correlatives of balanced compositions, balanced lighting and the compassionate pragmatism of Humphrey Bogart. Noir, on the other hand, pulled the ground from under the classic studio film, skewing the compositions, heightening the contrast ratio, speaking to the chasms and undertows just beneath the surface with an expressionism the Nazis labelled decadent and about which Hollywood had its own suspicions. Soderbergh would have fared better if he hadn't tried to invent from scratch the critique that noir already covered, thus leaving poor Clooney to race around Berlin in search of a story, a woman, the great whatzit, not knowing whether he's supposed to be Bogart or Dana Andrews.

Blame the woman

There is in Kanon's novel, although its romantic humanism is antithetical to Soderbergh's purposes, at least a setting and some plot fundamentals that take us to the opening moves of the Cold War and the origins of the film genre - film noir - most attuned to the disillusion and paranoia it engendered. Jake comes to Berlin, where he had run the Associated Press bureau before the war, to cover the Potsdam conference, during which Truman, Churchill and Stalin divided the spoils of the war that was barely over and made the opening gambit in the nuclear stand-off that would shape the second half of the 20th century. The most coveted German treasure is the brainpower of its rocket scientists. Both novel and film involve the attempt of the American government and its military to keep the Russians from getting their hands on one of these scientists - a Wernher von Braun-like figure - and also to find and destroy the evidence of his direct involvement in the murder a couple of thousand Jews, an attempt in which even Jake's old friend, a Nuremberg prosecutor, is complicit. In this world of moral relativism, it's OK to sweep Nazi war crimes under the rug in order to gain an advantage in the Cold War to come. Jake is sucked into this story because Lena, the love of his life, is married to the Wernher von Braun character's protégé, and thus may be in a position to lead the Americans and Russians to either her husband or the incriminating evidence. What Lena knows or wants, at least in the film version, is pretty unclear.

"The movie is about blind spots and what Jake refuses to see. Early in the film he lays out everything that has happened and is going to happen, but after he meets Lena again he's unable to think clearly anymore," Soderbergh tells me, referencing Orson Welles' description of the effect Rita Hayworth has on him in The Lady from Shanghai. The film exacerbates this blame-the-woman schema by turning Lena - the titular Good German of the novel - into a murdering femme fatale and a Jew who ratted out 12 other Jews to the Nazis in order "to survive". From victim to betrayer of her own people in one noir (and, from my position, stunningly misogynist) move. "I wanted you to hate what she did," Soderbergh continues. "I don't want her to be explained." The conversation turns to my memory of an earlier interview where Soderbergh told me that his father, a college administrator, had written about the Holocaust and had a significant library of Holocaust material, which was one of the reasons he had been drawn to Kanon's novel. "My father was very compelled by the Holocaust," Soderbergh says. "It was something we used to talk about all the time. My dad and I talked about the Wannsee conference [where the Nazis made the Final Solution their official policy]. Both of us felt that the human race would never live it down. It's something I'll never understand." Which does not in any way explain why the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust is conflated with the incomprehensibility that a man projects on to his object of desire and that rather than making that object of desire a Nazi (because surely what is incomprehensible about the Holocaust is the actions of the perpetrators), Soderbergh and Attanasio chose to make her a Jew.

Like The Good German, Soderbergh's next project - a biopic of Che Guevara - is a historical minefield. It will take the form of two separate films, both shot over a 90-day period beginning in May. "I'd like to release them within a week of each other, but we'll see. The first one goes from the launch of Granma [which brought exiled revolutionaries to Cuba in 1956 to overthrow the regime] to the battle of Santa Clara [the last battle in the revolution, 1958]. The second is the Bolivian campaign and begins in 1964. Benecio Del Toro plays Che and the films will be made in Spanish. There's no US financing involved. It was very frustrating to know that this is a zeitgeist movie and that some of the very people who told me how much they now regret passing on Traffic passed on this one too. But as it turned out, we have all the financing we need without an American distribution deal."

The first film will be shot in 16mm anamorphic because, Soderbergh says, "it needs a bit of Bruckheimer but scruffier. The second is in Super-16, 1.85:1. No dollies, no cranes, it's all either handheld or tripods. I want it to look nice but simple. We'll work with a very small group: basically me, the producer Gregory Jacobs and the unit production manager." As usual Soderbergh will be behind the camera. "The film would look better if, say, Harris Savides shot it because he's a better cinematographer than I am. But the thing as a whole would suffer because I'd be in my head more: it would be a less intuitive experience and I'd find that frustrating. I don't imagine injecting somebody into that role again, because it's gotten me, especially on the occasions where I've been able to cut as well, so close to my original impulse to make movies. I would never want to give that up now."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012