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Viewer Guide: The Good German and Carol

June 9, 2021 | Richard Peña


The Good German

This week’s classic is The Good German, the World War II romantic drama from 2006 based on the novel by Joseph Kanon directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Both an homage and an update on World War II genre classics like Casablanca and The Third Man, The Good German is set in 1945 in a rubble-strewn Berlin. George Clooney stars as Jake Geismer, an American war correspondent returning to the divided and devastated city for the Potsdam Conference, where the Allied Forces are gathering to map out a plan for post-war Germany. Upon his arrival, Geismer is picked up at the airport by Tully, his jovial army driver played by Tobey Maguire. However, Tully’s boyishness belies his illicit black market dealings, as well as his abusive relationship with Lena Brandt, a Jewish woman played by Cate Blanchett, who managed to escape the Holocaust as the wife of a high ranking SS officer. With her husband supposedly dead, Lena has resorted to prostitution to survive, but a chance encounter with Geismer reveals the pair had engaged in a pre-war affair. Determined to get Lena out of Berlin, Geismer finds himself more and more embroiled in Lena’s shadowy wartime past, as well as deciphering the truth behind her husband’s role working with the cadre of scientists who engineered the deadly V-2 rocket. For although the war in Europe is barely over, the US and the Soviets are already in a covert scramble to conscript “the best and the brightest” of Nazi engineers for their own postwar purposes.

With The Good German, director Steven Soderbergh not only sought to tell a World War II story, but to produce a film utilizing the production methods of the era, working in the style of veteran Hollywood directors like Michael Curtiz, whose extensive film credits include the beloved classic Casablanca. In fact, Jake and Lena’s airport farewell is directly reminiscent of Casablanca’s iconic final scene. While featuring adult content that would have been verboten by the period’s Hollywood production code, the film was entirely shot on studio sets and utilized the lighting, camera and even sound recording technology of the mid-1940s. As he wanted to have the 1:38 Academy screen ratio that was the format used exclusively before 1953, Soderbergh added black bars on each side of the widescreen frame to create the desired look yet still be projectable in today’s multiplexes. And if you found yourself admiring the work of cinematographer Peter Andrews and the editing of Mary Ann Bernard, all credit is still due to Soderbergh, who worked under aliases in both capacities.


Tonight’s indie is Carol, the 2015 romantic drama directed by Todd Haynes.

Adapted by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol at long last brought to the movie screen a story that was utterly taboo in Hollywood at the time of the book’s publication in 1952: the lesbian romance between a well-to-do married woman named Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett, and an aspiring young photographer named Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara. Set in New York City at the dawn of the Eisenhower era, the women meet during the Christmas season as Carol is shopping for presents at Frankenberg’s department store, where Therese has taken a seasonal job in the toy department. Struck by Carol’s glamorous air of melancholy, Therese soon learns that she is in the midst of an increasingly hostile divorce from her husband Harge, played by Kyle Chandler, and fighting to retain some degree of joint custody for their daughter. Harge still has feelings for Carol, but is increasingly bitter about her continuing friendship with her dear friend—and former lover—Abby, played by Sarah Paulson. Although Therese is making summer plans to visit France with her boyfriend Richard, it’s Carol that she finds herself thinking about. So it’s a welcome discovery when Therese notices that Carol has forgotten her gloves on the toy counter, giving her the opportunity to pursue the feelings she’s not yet sure how to define.

Author Patricia Highsmith began writing her novel Carol under its original title The Price of Salt in 1948, inspired by her experience as a seasonal Christmas worker at Bloomingdales and her interaction with a blonde woman in a fur coat shopping for a doll. After the success of her first novel Strangers on a Train, famously adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Highsmith opted to publish her second book under the pen name of “Claire Morgan.” Ultimately selling some one million copies before being republished under the title CAROL in 1990, the book’s popularity stemmed in part from being one of the very few lesbian stories of its era with an optimistic ending. Highsmith is especially well known for the “Ripliad,” a series of five books featuring the character of Tom Ripley, starting with 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. That too has made its way to the cinema, in René Clément’s Purple Noon with Alain Delon, as well as in an acclaimed 1999 adaptation by director Anthony Minghella, featuring Cate Blanchett in a supporting role. In addition, Andrew Scott has been announced to star in an upcoming eight-part miniseries adaptation of Highsmith’s “Ripliad” collection.

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