Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail;
our lips are our own—who is our master?
Director Steven Soderbergh takes us back to the chaotic era of post-WW 2 Berlin, not only as to the time of his story, but even the style of the film, his cinematographer Peter Andrews shooting the film in black and white, lighted like one of the film noirs just coming into popularity in the mid-Forties. The War is still raging in the Pacific, while in Berlin preparations are in high gear for the Potsdam Conference which will officially end the War in Europe and draw the lines that will affect its people for the next forty years. George Clooney plays Jake Geismer, a correspondent for Collier’s Magazine, on assignment to cover the Conference, but as far as he is concerned, returned to a Berlin he had once known well where he had loved the wife of a German scientist.
Cynically brushing aside any claim of the Germans that they did not know what went on in Hitler’s extermination camps, Jake’s obsession is to find out if his former lover Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) is still alive. In some ways he is like Rick in Casablanca, we almost coming to expect him to say when he does catch up to her, “Well, we had Berlin.” Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire) picks up Jake at the airport, he being the Army driver assigned to squire the correspondent around. We soon see that Tully is one of those crass soldiers that every division has, stealing and selling items on the black market, wheeling and dealing with friend and foe alike, the latter being the Russian officer General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov) to whom he delivers several cases of expensive liquor. To Jake’s surprise Lena show up as the Tully’s mistress.
Jake, of course, is upset with Lena, though he covers with his cynicism. Lena tries to explain that when the Russians stormed into Berlin life became a matter of a constant struggle for survival. Lena also is contending with keeping the whereabouts of her husband a secret from both the Americans and the Russians in the hope of sneaking him out of the Russian zone into the West. The Russians have been stripping the city and country of everything in the way of manufacturing equipment and shipping it east, whereas the Americans have concentrating on finding the Nazi scientists working on the V-2 rocket so that they can enlist them in their own rocket program, regardless of any war crimes guilt. When Lena finally reveals to Jake that her husband is alive and enlists his help in spiriting him out of the city, she contends that her husband is a “Good German,” even though his program involved employing thousands of Jewish slave laborers who were starved and worked to death,
This is not a feel good film, with an ending that is bittersweet, staying true to the film noir genre. There is, of course, involves a murder, with our protagonist suspected of being the perpetrator, and a lot of plot twists. As a study in human nature the film is well worth your time, reminding us that behind all the noble sounding words during the Cold War that is soon to follow, about defending Democracy against Communism and such, there is a darker side most of us would rather not admit.
1) Jake is upset by the Nazi treatment of Jews, but what do we discover about Tully in his remark , “Just don’t Jew me down.” ? Have you heard this remark? What stereotype is it based on? How is Anti-Semitism still a factor in North America and around the world, even though The Nazi regime was put to an end over 60 years ago?
2) What elements of the film noir genre do you see in this film? How is its ending almost a foregone conclusion?
3) What do you think of Lena’s assertion that her husband is a “good German” ? What happened during the war to most of the “good Germans” under the Hitler regime? (For a fine film about this see Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.)
4) How is the passage from Psalm 12 appropriate for a film noir? What do you think Lena means when she observes, “You can never really get out of Berlin” ? How is Berlin in this film a symbol similar to Chinatown in the movie of that name?
5) Compare the film noir worldview with the old “all’s right with the world” view. (Or with a film by Stephen Spielberg, such as his Schindler’s List.)