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'German' has '40s style but little heart

Classic film noir techniques -- all but the storytelling -- run amok in "The Good German," starring Cate Blanchett and George Clooney (above). (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.)

There's a great movie somewhere in "The Good German," but it's buried under three tons of run-amok formalism. Director Steven Soderbergh has decided to film this moral thriller, set in 1945 Berlin, as if he were literally making a movie in 1945. Thus the black - and - white film stock and camera lenses are vintage re-creations, the lighting is high noir, the picture-frame dimensions hew to the classic square box of the Academy aspect ratio. If I've already lost you, you're beginning to sense the film's problems.

Even the classic Warner Brothers logo at the start leads you to believe you're about to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman amounting to a hill of beautiful romantic beans. Instead, we get Tobey Maguire rogering Cate Blanchett and, yes, that's a wee shock. Soderbergh is purposefully serving fusion cuisine on an antique plate, but the clash just doesn't work.

Joseph Kanon's fine 2002 novel was set in the amoral wasteland of occupied Germany, and it painted the harsh reality behind our newsreel memories of the era with careful (and very readable) accumulation of detail. By contrast, Soderbergh's reality is old movies -- some of us can sympathize with that -- and so he filters this tale of murder, naïveté, and betrayal through "The Third Man" and Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair."

George Clooney plays Jake Geismer , a US journalist returning to the city from which he reported before the war; he's appalled to find his beloved Berlin prostrate -- literally drawn and quartered by the Americans, the British, the French, and the Russians. Truman, Churchill, and Stalin are arriving for the Potsdam conference, but Jake would rather clamber through the rubble looking for his lost love, the moody and very married Lena Brandt (Blanchett). In the process, he trips over a corpse, a conspiracy, and the death of his idealism.

When Jake eventually finds Lena, the director dollies in for a swooning close-up -- very "Casablanca," but it feels affected, more so when Soderbergh does it again a few scenes later. For once in his career, Clooney seems at a loss. He's too resourceful for Jake to be the patsy the story line demands (à la Joseph Cotton's Holly Martins in "The Third Man"), but the character's stalled by a script that leaves him always one piece short of the whole puzzle. Simply put, Clooney doesn't do confused impotence well.

In the book, the character of the young soldier Tully (Maguire) was revealed slowly, as one of the plot's chief mysteries. Soderbergh and screenwriter Paul Attanasio let us know right away that the kid's a rat -- a smiling, all-American G I who's neck deep in the black market and the sale of anything up to and including human beings. He likes to smack his girlfriends around, too, and you can tell Maguire's getting a charge out of not having to play prissy Peter Parker for a change. Yet he's as miscast as Clooney: a college boy smugly trying on a villain's cloak.

Beau Bridges has a nice bit as a colonel patiently explaining to the hero why a German scientist like Lena's husband (Christian Oliver) might be useful to both the United States and the Soviets in the new world order, and both Tony Curran as an Army Nazi hunter and Ravil Isyanov as a Soviet general make incisive short work of their scenes.

The movie's not really interested in them, though, or in people at all -- just high-contrast photography, period editing transitions, Thomas Newman's score thunderously raising the ghost of Miklós Rózsa. (It's incredible music, but it never lets you breathe.) "The Good German" is a movie wonk's triumph and no one else's. Soderbergh gets the visuals right but not the clean storytelling line of classic cinema, nor the iconic characters or moral certainty of the oldies. We wouldn't believe him if he had, because we lost our moviegoing innocence in the '60s and '70s. To pretend otherwise is like reverse-engineering a virgin: Can't be done.

Only Blanchett finds a way out of the movie's numbing stylistic dead-end. With her hair dyed black and her eyes sad coals of depravity, Blanchett's Dietrichesque Lena is an extension of the shadows looming from every corner of every shot. The character's weighed down with complicity -- her people's and her own -- and over the course of the movie Lena becomes a symbol of Berlin itself, full of ruined self-knowledge and bereft of hope.

It's a startling turn, especially next to the actress' s polar-opposite performance in next week's "Notes on a Scandal. " Soderbergh barely seems to realize what he's got, though. "The Good German" is a stillborn conceit in all respects except the dark heart beating at its center.

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