Author's note: this review was originally submitted to and rejected by a certain alt-weekly of my community. If it seems like it lacks the editorial joie de vivre of my customary work, that is doubtlessly why.

The most apparent reason for Steven Soderbergh’s moderately confusing The Good German to exist is that of style, a style that has been lifted intact from the films noirs of Hollywood in the 1940s. I say “intact,” and that is precisely accurate: the director shot the entire project using only those techniques which were available in 1945, after consulting the shooting notes for a number of classic Warner Bros. films (primarily Casablanca; fittingly, The Good German looks like nothing so much as a series of outtakes from that film). Vintage fixed-length lenses were used, the all-but-dead effect of rear projection was trotted out in a few scenes, even the methods used to record on-set dialogue hearken back to the lo-fi days of yore.

The result is a gorgeous black & white film that, excepting a few moments with a visual sharpness rarely found in the softer stock of the time, looks and sounds exactly like a lost work by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, newly unearthed from the Warner vaults. Of course, a Curtiz picture could never have starred George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, could never have traded so frankly in violence and sex. This is both the triumph and the curse of The Good German: it never lets you forget that it’s an old-school film of the modern age.

The story, as with so many noirs, is a bit of a mess, and it never completely resolves itself: Jacob Geismer (Clooney) is a New Republic war correspondent dispatched to Berlin in the summer of 1945 to cover the Potsdam peace conference. Almost immediately, he encounters his former lover, Lena Brandt (Blanchett), currently sleeping with his driver Tully (Tobey Maguire). Within a few days, Geismer finds himself investigating a murder with ties to the Russian sector of Berlin, exploring the Nazi connections of Lena’s apparently deceased husband Emil, and generally learning that in a time and place like Germany in 1945, there are no “good” people, only desperate survivors.

The plot is too twisty to recount any further, and most of what happens in the first hour is nothing but a string of red herrings anyway. Not that it matters, by and large: the events of the film are simply a tour of the venality of reconstruction. The American Col. Muller, played by Beau Bridges in what they used to call a “Special Guest Appearance,” may or may not have anything to do with Geismer’s investigations, but that is not really why the film visits him; it’s really so that we can see how depraved an American military officer can become. Both the script and the general tone hearken back to Rosselini’s Germany Year Zero or Reed’s The Third Man: when Europe is in ruins, what good is morality?

Being a “good German” is said to mean, supporting the efforts of the Allies to bring order to the country and helping prosecute Nazis, but it’s worth remembering that the phrase can also mean “one loyal to Germany,” and when Lena says of her husband, “He was a good German,” it’s not clear that she means one or the other, or some combination in between. But in the film’s cynical worldview, being a “good” anything is meaningless: the good German is one who killed Jews, the good American is one who steals money and power, keeps German prostitutes, and kills to keep Nazi secrets from the Communists.

None of which has much of anything to do with Soderbergh’s work as director, as cinematographer (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews) and as editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard). As is almost always the case in a Soderbergh film, The Good German is first and above all an experiment. The experiment is not always completely successful: notably, the score by Thomas Newman sounds a bit too operatic, closer to John William’s work in the Indiana Jones trilogy than anything actually written in the 1940s. And much has been made of Soderbergh’s efforts to guide his actors to the declarative performance style of the era, and while it works brilliantly for the most part, certain performers, especially Maguire, wildly overcompensate. (The film is lucky to have its two leads: Clooney has made a career out of channeling the leading men of the postwar era, and Blanchett is a standout, with her smoky and obviously-affected German accent, and her piercing dark eyes keeping her firmly in the fatale end of the femme scale).

The film has come under attack for being soulless, and it’s not terribly hard to see why. Certainly, no vintage noir could get away with such a ramshackle plot (except for the The Big Sleep, but that movie traded on the irreproducible chemistry of its stars), and the characters here are not nearly so engaging as they should be; this is almost entirely the fault of a screenplay that keeps hopping from protagonist to protagonist without any understandable reason. Besides, it is simply impossible to argue that this isn’t something we’ve seen before.

We haven’t seen it for a very long time, however, and that is what makes The Good German interesting. Ultimately, it’s not “about” Germany, or the morality of World War II, or the acts people commit to survive. It’s “about” the relationship of Old Hollywood to New Hollywood (and how strange indeed that the great defender of Old Hollywood is an indie filmmaker, and that this most Hollywood of films is getting the art theater treatment). The ideal audience for this film, I think, is precisely the one that will be least surprised by it, the audience that has memorized and internalized all of the classic Warner Bros. pictures and their style. Watching for all of the ideas that Soderbergh stole from other ideas isn’t frustrating, it’s part of the point: here’s the plane from Casablanca, here’s the sewer from The Third Man.

This isn’t 1945, however, it’s 2006 and there can not be a film made like Casablanca anymore. Film is more cynical now, more adult (although not necessarily more mature), and The Good German exploits that shift fully, exploring what we’ve lost and gained in the last 60 years of cinema. It’s hard to say what Soderbergh feels on that question – the film is unabashedly nostalgic, but both in the specific (the increasing amounts of bloody cuts all over Clooney’s face; scattered nudity) and the general (the frank way the film discusses the Holocaust), this could never have been made in the studios’ golden age – but the film is unquestionably an elegy; a song of the loss of innocence for the whole world in the aftermath of the Last Good War, and for the loss of a way of filmmaking that gave us some of the finest motion pictures imaginable, and will now never return.