The Good German
What was it like in Berlin, in the summer of 1945? In The Good German, we get a surreal glimpse, and the picture isn't pretty.
There's rubble everywhere. Bombed-out buildings are part of the landscape, as are the gaunt faces, the food lines, and the palpable smell of despair. The Allies have already partitioned the defeated city, and the rifts between them are already swelling to the surface, even as the Potsdam Conference decides how the victors will divide the spoils. It's not difficult to see the political handwriting on the wall: the French and British just want out. The Russians want a thick buffer of real estate between them and the next invader. And the Americans want to export the surviving technology, especially any good Germans that helped develop the U-2 rockets, even the staffers who merely took notes. They, and their documentation, were more eagerly pursued than the Nazis themselves, who seem to have melted into the anonymous civilian population. Everyone claimed they had nothing to do with the genocide; they were just following orders; they did not realize the extent of the Holocaust; they were too busy just trying to survive.
Into this volatile mix of anger, guilt, post-traumatic stress, and opportunism, the Americans in their clean, crisp uniforms are seemingly everywhere. George Clooney plays Captain Geismer, a war correspondent who is looking for a former stringer (and mistress) whom he hired back when he was heading up the AP Berlin Bureau, before the War. Cate Blanchette plays Lena, a willowy, sad-looking woman whose personal sorrows dull the shine in her eyes, and pull at the corners of her mouth. She has survived, yes, but only by sacrificing her dignity and her principles for the sake of sheltering a husband who was a clerk for the brain trust that built the bombs. She wants to rescue him, and get herself out, as well. But she has no leverage, and little skills, other than her wiles, her determination, and a sad kind of attractiveness that compels certain men to try to help her.
Toby Maguire plays an American corporal who has parlayed his motor pool credentials into a thriving little black-market business, even venturing across political sectors. But he's in over his head and doesn't know it. Geismer, for his part, keeps getting beat up, but possesses a dogged resolve to rattle the cages of the more influential, like the captain in charge of hunting down Nazis, or the colonel trying to corral potential defectors, even the Congressman concerned about the post-War balance of power. True, Geismer is in over his head, as well, but he remains a loyal romantic, at least, when all around him have lost their innocence and their illusions.
The Good German pays homage to the screenplay technology of an earlier generation. It's in black and white. The orchestral music cues at dramatic times in the dialogue. The violence is toned-down to the point of nearly bloodless. There is little stock in chase scenes, explosions, and computer-generated images, and much more reliance on the simmering glance, the petulant silence, and the intrigue of viewer discovery. Even the car rides look fakey, like the background scenery is a moving picture behind the still shot of the actors in the automobile. And yes, the characters frequently smoke on screen, and carelessly toss aside their cigarette butts, as if in the aftermath of the blood of millions of corpses crying silently from the ground (Genesis 4:10), litter is hardly a concern.
The Good German does bring up the seldom-asked question of what the good Germans were doing while all the atrocities were going on. It's a bitter aftermath to a part of history rapidly fading from the memories of the living, as each passing year results in fewer surviving veterans. As the cultural consciousness of 1945 recedes into the dusty pages of history, perhaps it's important to return to the rubble of Berlin one more time, to remind ourselves that a vivid era needs to be remembered, even if it's a grim memorial.
Questions For Discussion:
1) How much culpability for war crimes should travel down the chain of command?
2) How much culpability for war crimes should devolve upon a whole society?
3) Have you been in a position of compromising your principles and dignity for the sake of an overriding purpose? Was it worth it?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas