Black to the future

The Good German, a new film noir, shows that recycling old techniques passes for cinema experimentalism today.

Guy Rundle

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Whatever you think of some of his less successful films, you’ve got to give credit to Steven Soderbergh for one thing: almost alone among his arthouse director peers he has understood that making great art is as much about quantity as quality. While other directors turn out a movie every three years or so, Soderbergh has imposed on himself the discipline of one, sometimes two movies a year – from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Out of Sight and all points in between. That’s just the kind of workrate that the studio system used to ask of masters such as Howard Hawks or John Ford in the Forties and Fifties.

Perhaps it’s that very association that led Soderbergh to his most recent project, the Second World War thriller, The Good German, shot in black and white and in the style of films of that era. The film has received mixed reviews, but critics have been united in praising it as bold and experimental. And in that judgement lies the true mystery, for it is the very lack of daring in movies like The Good German that illustrates some of the challenges that popular film is refusing to take up.

You could make a very long festival out of pastiche 1940s black-and-white movies, but The Good German comes with a twist. While limiting itself to the technologies and style of the time (deep shadow, projected backdrops, ‘dollying in’ – ie, moving the whole camera rather than zooming with the lens – for close ups) it has included all the explicit sex, violence and swearing that the Hays Code of film censorship would have excluded at that time.

The effect is initially startling and illuminating. Days after war correspondent Jake Geismar (George Clooney) arrives in postwar Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference, his corrupt driver Tully (Tobey Maguire) – in the midst of an explicit, violent sexual relationship with prostitute Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) – is murdered. The incident leads Geismar into a twisted plot involving the Holocaust and the spiriting away of former Nazi rocket scientists by the US military, and a series of visual references to more than a dozen classic Forties films. The delicious chiaroscuro (light and dark) of classic film noir is renewed by bringing into this world elements we find more recognisable.

Yet the effect not only wears off quickly but even reverses itself, draining much of the mystery from the genre. For the point of film noir – that bizarre conjunction of exiled German expressionist directors and the Hollywood studio system – was that the dark shadows were not simply a physical lighting effect. They were pregnant with the meaning of what could not be represented, of the unsaid and unsayable. Made in a decade when a world war had unleashed not only total war, but a degree of mobility unprecedented in human history, the characters in film noir – soldiers, petty crims, femme fatales – were not merely anonymous people, but also screaming neurotics. This was filmmaking in an intellectual culture dominated by classical Freudian psychoanalysis. It was the terrific sense of repression that made the films so powerful, and the need to create symbolic rather than real violence that made them inexhaustible as art.

When Gloria Grahame gets a face full of scalding coffee from her pimp in The Big Heat, we never see the impact on her face – simply a hand reaching for the steaming bubbling coffee pot, whose pure blackness becomes a visual metaphor for unalloyed evil. (It is followed by the pimp’s classic line to his next victim: ‘See what I did to her? And her I like! Imagine what I’m going to do to you!’) Violence and sex, when explicitly portrayed, don’t signify anything, never acquire metaphorical charge. Everything is presented exactly as it is. That is one of the reasons why so many multiplex films have become so boring in an age when all limits have finally been cast off. The Good German trades away the essence of the genre it works in, and thus loses much of our interest within 15 minutes.

You could say it’s an interesting experiment, but the trouble is we already knew what it establishes. We’ve been theorising film noir for a half-century now, and no genre in cinema history has been more written about. In other words, The Good German is not an essay in experimentation, but in mannerism – the characteristic of mannerism in any art form being the exhaustive exploration of permutations for their own sake, beyond any usefulness they might once have possessed. Mannerism tends to break out when there has been a tremendous burst of artistic innovation and quality – as there was in Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties, and again in the Seventies – and a way to further revolutionise the form has not yet been fully conceived.

The ‘postmodernism’ that arose in architecture in the Eighties – the return of ornament, often coded with knowing references to classic buildings – was an example of mannerism, a response to the degraded ‘modernism’ of tower blocks and corporate box skyscrapers, that was nevertheless unwilling to take on the deeper spirit of modernism and reinvent a relationship to new materials.

To a degree a similar thing has happened in film, and The Good German is one example of that – others being the recent and forthcoming work of Tarantino (Jackie Brown – Seventies crime procedural film, Kill Bill – kung fu movies), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven – an exact pastiche of the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the Fifties), and Gus van Sant (Psycho – an almost exact copy of the Hitchcock original).

It would be impossible to imagine directors as talented as these being able to stand the boredom of working within such straitjackets if we lived in a period in which new ways of making film were busting out all over. Rather, the looking back to the past is occurring because the existing framework of popular film – that of externalised third-person realism – has been utterly exhausted in the 70 years since the classic Hollywood style came together. The next step – a popular cinema that incorporates the significant representation of internal psychological states, shifting points of view, discontinuous story as more than novelty elements within a traditional presentation – has not yet been substantially attempted.

Film, which is stuck at the stage the novel was at with Dickens, despite having reached that point with the work of DW Griffith a bare 20 years after its invention, has not really earned the right to a mannerist stage yet, but the dominant figures in the medium are, by and large, too purely filmic, too much cinema-addicts, to have the necessary intellectual heft to pull it out of such a slump.

In that respect it’s no coincidence that the one director to come from outside the film world – David Lynch, a one-time surrealist painter – has been the only mainstream director to at least make the attempt at such a leap into the full incorporation of non-realist techniques into popular genres. But by now half the movies in the multiplex should be using the techniques that Lynch and others have developed in works such as Lost Highway and Inland Empire. They are refusing the challenge, partly because they cannot fully conceptualise it, but also out of a certain self-indulgence. There is a loss of faith in cultural progress and an unwillingness to privilege difficult and challenging material over routine generic production.

Is such an argument to suggest a pessimistic tale of cultural decline? Not at all. It is to suggest that whole artforms can fall into a hole that takes years or decades to get out of if the sources of the malaise are not reflected upon. British drama for practically the whole of the nineteenth century was trapped in such a hole, as was, say, art in Italy for much of the twentieth century. The difference is that popular cinema is a global form, so we all suffer from a generalised timidity – and hence that feeling we all increasingly recognise of looking at the weekly listings and finding there is nothing that anyone older than 14 could find much interest in seeing.

In such a climate, it is perhaps inevitable that artistic freedom would seek nothing more ambitious than the limits of an earlier era.

Guy Rundle is the European editor of the Australian magazine Arena.

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