Out of the Past

Warner Bros.

The opening scene of director Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film Out of Sight, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s popular crime novel, is a bank robbery. The thief, Jack Foley (George Clooney), first storms out of an office building, takes off his tie, and hurls it to the ground, the film freezing on him in mid-spike. After smoothing out his hair, Foley walks directly across the street, into a bank, and robs it without a gun. He’s all talk, charm, and smirk. In these early moments, you don’t know Jack. But you get the sense he just wants to see if he can pull it off.

That daredevil panache drives the Ocean’s heist movies too. In Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, all starring Clooney as Danny Ocean and directed by Soderbergh, the thrill is in the execution of the pitch-perfect plan. Each film is a testament to the collaborative effort of a gang coming together to get in, get what they want, and get out before anyone tells them no.

To Soderbergh, that’s filmmaking. Like the gamblers, thieves, and hustlers that populate many of his films, he’s not afraid to lay it all on the line. He’ll push his chips across the table in pursuit of an idea, and risk total failure. As a filmmaker, he is fundamentally an experimenter, willing to try just about anything in the name of cinema.

Soderbergh’s long career is populated with experiments: His second feature, the little-seen and barely remembered Kafka (1991) is filmed in black and white, but switches to color for the film’s climax. He dropped out of Hollywood entirely to make Schizopolis (1996), a bizarre workplace satire in which he also stars. He began a “one-for-us, one-for-them” residency in Hollywood, alternating between big budget studio films like the Ocean’s films and off-the-radar independent efforts like Bubble (2005), which featured non-professional actors. Along the way, he won an Academy Award for directing the drug trade epic Traffic (2000); experimented with genre fare with Contagion (2011), Haywire (2011), and Side Effects (2013); brought beefcake back with Magic Mike (2012); retired; directed, shot, and edited all 20 episodes of Cinemax’s The Knick (2014-2015); unretired; made another heist movie, Logan Lucky (2017); directed, shot, and edited every episode of HBO’s “choose-your-own-adventure” mystery series Mosaic (2018); and is now set to release Unsane in 2018, a thriller he shot entirely on an iPhone.

It’s enough to knock the wind out of you. What characterizes all this work is his absolute refusal to stand pat. He drifts from project to project, seemingly attracted more to the technical filmmaking challenge than any specific material. The subject of his films barely matters; to Soderbergh, the juice is in the doing. He’s Jack Foley, wandering into a bank on a whim, just to see if he can get out with any money.

One such experiment is 2006’s The Good German, practically lost down the memory hole of Soderbergh’s multivariate cinematic identities and projects. Set during the Potsdam Conference peace talks in the closing days of World War II, this throwback exercise reaches into cinema’s yesteryear, remixing Casablanca (1942) and The Third Man (1949) into a noir-esque thriller about the aftermath of devastating conflict and ruined people trying to pick up the pieces of their bombed-out lives.

The film is in black and white, features a Thomas Newman score that recalls old Hollywood’s triumphant orchestral grandeur, and is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio (devotees of Soderbergh’s Twitter feed know he’s obsessed with proper aspect ratio exhibition). Flip past The Good German on television and—were it not for the presence of modern Hollywood stars—you might think you’d landed on Turner Classic Movies.Berlin is the setting, where journalist Jake Geismer (Clooney again) is sent to cover the peace talks for The New Republic. His military escort and driver, ornery little jerk Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), is mixed up in the underground black market and involved with a Jewish-German woman named Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, radiating Ingrid Bergman). During the war, she was married to a former S.S. officer named Emil. To make matters more complicated, before the war, she was working for and sleeping with Geismer. When Tully ends up dead after crossing the wrong people, Jake sets out to find out who killed him, and get Lena out of Berlin before she is arrested and tried for war crimes.

The film’s marketing materials made the obvious debt to Casablanca even more obvious, with a poster designed deliberately to evoke that romantic classic. Geismer’s long lost love, stolen documents, a cast of European-accented characters—Rick, Ilsa, Victor Laszlo, and the letters of transit. It’s like history repeating itself all over again.

So, why would Soderbergh do this? Why revisit this well-worn territory? Why resuscitate classic Hollywood film techniques as they were almost 60 years in the past? Why ignore the way those methods have evolved to match today’s audiences? What’s the point of reaching so far back into cinema history?

Well, I think he wanted to see if he could do it.

From a casting perspective, Clooney makes a great deal of sense. The Good German was the fifth of their six (to date) pairings as actor-director, and it was Soderbergh’s casting of Clooney in Out of Sight that really announced his arrival as a major movie star. Clooney’s own directing and producing career shows a strong affinity for classic Hollywood films, making him ideal for the role of Geismer. On one hand, his star persona evokes screwball Cary Grant in his films with the Coen Brothers; on the other, he combines the earnest moralism of Henry Fonda with the swagger of Burt Lancaster. Here, he’s in a kind of Humphrey Bogart role, carrying the weariness of Rick Blaine’s wounded heart, pairing that with cynical mistrust of the Berlin’s dubious military authority, both American and Russian. Clooney knows what’s asked of him in The Good German.

Soderbergh’s film strays from classic Hollywood in its disregard for the rules of the production code, which prohibited explicit violence, sex, and coarse language. Therefore, Rick Blaine’s iconic line, “Of all the gin-joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine,” becomes Geismar’s, “This whole goddamn country, she winds up fucking my fucking driver.”

The juxtaposition of lines like this, with their unchecked profanity, clashes mightily with the film’s self-conscious adoption of old Hollywood filmmaking techniques. Soderbergh liberally uses rear-projection style backgrounds in the scenes where Tully drives Jake around Berlin. Their artificiality not only announces itself, but becomes the entire point of the moment. His camera wants you to notice the glaring difference between modern movie star Tobey Maguire behind the wheel and grainy Berlin streets whipping past the window. He also frequently undermines the illusion in subtle ways—one scene in the army jeep is shot through the front windshield, which is flaked with dust. In classic Hollywood, the windshields were always squeaky clean.

Left-to-right wipes across the frame jump you from scene to scene, even more frequently than they would in classic Hollywood films. One especially effective example trails a character exiting a room, so that the door he closes behind him takes the remainder of the scene with it, leaving an exterior shot of a mansion in its wake. In essence, Soderbergh is paying homage to old techniques, but not losing sight of his role as a filmmaker, which is to use those stylistic flourishes as best he can to tell his story.One way he commits to this is through the cinematography, which is the single element in the film that feels the most like classic Hollywood. Not only does Soderbergh—shooting the film himself under his regular pseudonym Peter Andrews—lengthen the duration of the shots, he also finds unique and creative ways to follow the actors through the physical space. John Huston’s long take in The Maltese Falcon (1941), as all the players gather in Sam Spade’s apartment, is an excellent example of the ways in which classic Hollywood filmmakers blocked actors in a space and used the camera to travel to them. The camera moves weren’t the flashiest, most dynamic pans and push-ins ever committed to celluloid, but there was balletic beauty to the exacting control and precision required of the cast and crew to hit those marks just right.

Soderbergh seems to have taken influence from a filmmaker like Otto Preminger, whose similar devotion to long takes with workmanlike camera movement guides his characters’ interactions in films like Laura (1944) and Daisy Kenyon (1947). Soderbergh routinely begins scenes on a close-up of an object, and dollies the camera back to reveal the main action; he does this near the end of the film, as one of the central cast members lies in a hospital bed. His first shot of the scene is a close-up on the saline drip, hanging in a bottle from a rail. He pulls the camera back to a medium shot of the bed-ridden character, and another seated on the bed, in conversation with each other.

Soderbergh also follows actors through the set, dollying the camera rather than cutting. In one moment, as Jake is preparing to leave Lena’s apartment, Soderbergh’s camera starts in a close-up on Jake’s hat on a hallway table. Jake’s hand reaches into the frame to grab the hat, and Soderbergh pulls the camera back, following the movement of the hat up to Jake’s head. Without cutting, he swings the physical camera to the right as Jake crosses left, then pans to the left, ending up behind him, and pushing forward slightly as Jake opens the door and exits the room. None of it feels handheld, but smooth, like someone gave Fred Astaire the camera. Today, that’s four or five shots, but Soderbergh does it in one. These staging decisions demonstrate his internalization of classic Hollywood cinematography conventions. These camera moves don’t enunciate as clearly and loudly as his rear-projection does, but they are just as much a part of the immersive experience.

All this experimentation and willful acceptance of a bygone era’s limitations results in one of Soderbergh’s most impeccably-designed films. Some of his other movies feel somewhat freewheeling, as in his employment of a handheld look for Traffic and Erin Brockovich (2000). Others, like Che (2008) or The Girlfriend Experience (2009) feel very of the world, rather than crafted, due to his reliance on location shooting and non-professional actors. In The Good German, the studio-system soundstage look leads to a number of beautifully crafted disasters, as confrontations between Jake and Lena play out on a tenement staircase dotted with debris, or on fabricated Berlin streets piled high with bricks and beams, the ruins of mankind’s greatest catastrophe.

The interplay between light and shadow in these hollowed out sets is also something to behold. Soderbergh never misses a chance to cast the shadow of an iron fence on a white wall, or shoot a ray of bright sunlight through an open window. Even in close-ups on his actors, he emphasizes their eyes by dimming the rest of their faces with shadows. When Lena first recognizes Jake’s voice in a bar, Blanchett’s illuminated eyes carry the weight of their romantic history, while her mouth is shrouded in a deep, mysterious blackness.  

And still, there is the pull of the modern: For all Soderbergh’s reliance on old cinematic techniques, all his adherence to the conventions of classic Hollywood, the film is still yanked back into the present through its frank depiction of themes and ideas unwelcome in the era of Casablanca. In order to survive in Berlin, Lena works as a prostitute; in one of the film’s few formal deviations from classic Hollywood conventions, Soderbergh inserts quick flashbacks to her rape at the hands of a Russian officer. The succession of short cuts feels more like Godard than Michael Curtiz, as if Soderbergh knows that the rules of old Hollywood cannot abide Lena’s emotions in that moment. The most shocking image in the film occurs here, as Lena pulls the officer’s gun out of its holster and shoots him in the head. His blood splatters on the wall in the background of the tightly composed frame. His body collapses on hers.The tension between old Hollywood romanticism and modern filmmaking’s more confrontational style reaches its climax in the final scene, set at the U.S. military’s airstrip. In the film’s most overt nod to Casablanca, the scene appears at first to be a replay of its climactic moment. You know it: Rick nobly sacrifices his love for Ilsa so that she will board the plane with Laszlo, who is on his way to help bring an end to the war. In The Good German, as Jake and Lena wait for their plane in the pouring rain, Jake finally gets Lena to come clean about her sins. She reveals that she turned 12 fellow Jews over to the Gestapo, in exchange for her own survival. As in Casablanca, she gets on the plane, and he stays on the runway. This time, though, it’s not the recognition that Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris that fills the distance between them. Instead, it’s the realization that Lena won’t ever forgive herself for what she’s done, and Jake isn’t sure he would either. Great romantic love, however temporary it was, gives way to guilt, shame, and the heavy burden that comes along with surviving the worst tragedy in history.

The Good German is not an overlooked masterpiece. It might not even be good—I still can’t decide. But I am sure it demonstrates that awareness of and direct engagement with cinema history makes film feel like a living thing, forever in dialogue with itself. Juxtaposing old stylistic choices with new content makes both feel fresh and interesting. It’s as if the movie is asking, “If this worked then, why can’t it work now?” and isn’t afraid to find out that the answer is, “Well, maybe it can’t.” This effort makes the film more than an exercise in nostalgia, a commodity in heavy supply these days. Instead, it is an attempt to get at something universally true about cinema.

If Steven Soderbergh’s critics are right, then he is an empty formalist whose films suffer from unwillingness to engage with their characters and stories emotionally. But if they’re wrong, then perhaps films like The Good German help us understand what he’s trying to do when he gets behind the camera. When I watch this film, and the others in Soderbergh’s body of work, I see a filmmaker willing to challenge himself. I see films almost impossible to categorize neatly. I see formal experimentation that pushes the medium forward in exciting ways. But mostly, I see a director, producer, cinematographer, editor, and even sometime actor who, above all, is not afraid to fail.