The film was shot in black-and-white and is designed to imitate the appearance of film noir from the 1940s, although it also includes material – such as sex scenes and swearing – that would have been prohibited by the Production Code. Its poster is an homage to the poster for the classic film Casablanca (1942, also a Warner Bros. film), as is the closing scene at an airport. The DVD release presents the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio which declined in use from about 1953, though the theatrical release, and other DVD Releases, used the slightly more modern but still unusual 1.66:1 ratio.
The film received mixed reviews and grossed $5.9 million worldwide against a budget of $32 million.
Jacob "Jake" Geismer (George Clooney), an American war correspondent for The New Republic, returns to Berlin during the Potsdam negotiations between the Allied powers after World War II was over in Europe (May 1945) but before hostilities ended in Asia (August 1945). Jacob witnesses his murdered driver, a black-marketeering American soldier named Tully (Tobey Maguire), being fished from a river eddy, suspiciously adjacent to the Potsdam conference grounds. The corpse is discovered to be in possession of 50,000 German reichsmarks — which are later revealed to have been printed by the U.S occupying forces.
Geismer becomes entwined in both the mystery of his murdered driver and the clandestine search by both Soviet and American forces for the missing German Emil Brandt (the title character, played by Christian Oliver). He becomes more involved in both mysteries as his investigation intersects with his search for Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), a Jew — and Emil's wife — with whom Geismer had been in a relationship prior to the war. Lena has survived the Holocaust by doing "what she had to" to stay alive — early in the film this is assumed to be prostitution, but Lena, in reality, holds a darker secret of complicity and guilt.
In the film, Emil Brandt is a former SS officer who had been the secretary of Franz Bettmann, Chief Production Engineer of the V-2 rocket at concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora/Mittelwerk. (Bettmann is only a minor character in the film; he appears to be based on the real Arthur Rudolph.) The Soviets, the Americans, and the British all try to get hold of Emil Brandt, for different reasons. The Americans have already detained Bettmann in a safehouse and intend to transport him to the U.S. as part of their Operation Overcast/Paperclip to have him work on their own rocket program (cf. Wernher von Braun). In the film, they are fully aware of Bettmann's role at Camp Dora and know about the slave labor used in the V-2 program, but want to cover up his involvement (because they could not lawfully employ a known war criminal), which includes eliminating Emil Brandt, whose testimony or written notes would prevent their whitewashing of Bettmann.
Geismer, in his attempts to get his former lover, Lena, out of Berlin, gets more and more involved in the search for Emil Brandt. At one point, Lena gives Emil's notes on Camp Dora to Geismer. When Lena and Geismer try to hand Emil Brandt over to the American prosecutor charged with handling war crimes cases, they are intercepted by the American authorities who want to protect Bettmann, and Brandt is murdered. But Geismer still has Brandt's notebooks, which he now trades in to the war crimes investigators of the U.S. Army (who have turned out to be in league with the other American authorities - the ones who want to keep that evidence confidential to whitewash Bettmann) in exchange for a Persilschein (a denazification document) and a visa for Lena, such that she can leave Germany.
Through a minor character of a Jewish owner of a pawn shop who survived the Holocaust with his legs amputated, the film refers to the Nazi human experimentation, in particular to bone transplantation experiments as they were done at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.George Clooney as Captain Jacob "Jake" Geismer
Cate Blanchett as Lena Brandt
Tobey Maguire as Corporal Patrick Tully
Beau Bridges as Colonel Muller
Tony Curran as Danny
Leland Orser as Captain Bernie Teitel
Jack Thompson as Congressman Breimer
Robin Weigert as Hannelore
Ravil Isyanov as General Sikorsky
Dave Power as Lieutenant Hasso Schaeffer
Christian Oliver as Emil Brandt
The film imitates the appearance of films from Classical Hollywood studio-era. Most of the scenes were shot on soundstages and on Universal Studios' backlot, and were then edited with archival Russian footage and archived film from Corbis. Although the finished film is in black and white, it was shot in color because this allowed the use of faster film than available black-and-white film stocks, and afforded the ability to use 'green screen' techniques. The color was then reduced in post-production through the use of a digital intermediate to a grainier black and white, in order to blend with the carefully restored archival material.
Unlike modern films that are shot with significant "coverage" and mostly with close-ups or two shots, The Good German was shot with 1940s era wide angle lenses, such as a 32 mm, with deep focus, "strongly accented camera angles" and entire scenes staged. Director Steven Soderbergh said:
that kind of staging is a lost art, which is too bad. The reason they no longer work that way is because it means making choices, real choices, and sticking to them ... That's not what people do now. They want all the options they can get in the editing room.
The set lighting was entirely incandescent and the audio was recorded on a boom mike instead of the more modern body mikes or ADR. These decisions, combined with the limited coverage, allowed the rough cut to be produced in two days after wrapping up filming.
The film's title alludes to the notion of "a good German", one who ostensibly was not to blame for allowing Hitler to persecute the Jews and others, and who did not see the Holocaust as it occurred before his eyes. In addition, the title is an allusion to the phrase common among soldiers of the Allied Powers during the invasion of Europe after D-Day, that "The only good German is a dead German" - and the consequences of this death are seed for all that follows in the story of the film. Thematically, the film centers on guilt, and whether it is possible to survive the atrocities while being unaware of and not complicit in them.
The Good German received generally mixed reviews, with many critics complaining that it was too reliant on style and did not concentrate on the building of characters. On Rotten Tomatoes, 33% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 147 reviews. On Metacritic, the film has an average score of 49 out of 100 based on 34 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone greatly appreciated the film.
The film made $76,817 in its opening weekend in five US theaters. It had a worldwide gross of $5,914,908, of which $1,308,696 was in the US, against a $32 million budget.
The film was nominated for the Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.