The directors: Steven Soderbergh

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Steven Soderbergh‘s latest film, ’The Good German‘ is not only set in 1945 Berlin – starring George Clooney as a US Army war correspondent and Cate Blanchett as his mysterious German ex-girlfriend Lena – but is also shot in the style of a 1940s black-and-white noir. Even the promo ads mirror the original poster for ’Casablanca‘. Here, Soderbergh explains the process by which he decided to recreate war-ravaged Berlin on a Hollywood back-lot for no more than $32 million

The directors: Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh directing 'The Good German'. (c) Melinda Sue Gordon

The process of determining how to make ‘The Good German’ stylistically – what aesthetic to employ – was gradual. I read Joseph Kanon’s book in the spring of 2001, and I felt there was a great part for George Clooney and that there was a slice of history here that I wasn’t aware of, this pursuit of German scientists by the Russians and the Americans in postwar Berlin. After determining this could be a good movie and hiring Paul Attanasio to write the screenplay, both of us underestimated the amount of work that was going to be involved in turning the book into a movie. There were three years during which I didn’t start to think about how to shoot it.


Finally, as part of building up a visual reference library for all of us of war-torn Berlin, we started getting hold of all this archive footage that had been shot right after the end of the war. I decided that I had to incorporate this footage into the film. It was extraordinary and there was no way to recreate the feeling of it solely with the art department. That meant making a black-and-white film. There was no other way. There was some colour footage shot in Berlin in 1945, but it was in 16mm colourchrome and if you’d shot the other 90 per cent of the movie to look like that, it would have been unwatchable.

So I decided on black-and-white. But at that point, I had two choices. Should I go the Rossellini route and try and make the entire film look like
the rest of this documentary footage and shoot it in a handheld, ‘Rome, Open City’ sort of way? Or should I go the Warners Bros studio way and fuse this archive footage with my own studio-shot footage and not attempt any more than they did in ‘Casablanca’ – where they also used archive – to make it seamless? Those were the options.

As it turned out, ironically, I determined that the most economical way to do it was as a back-lot movie. Even shooting the ‘Rome, Open City’ version would require more physical scale than I was going to be able to afford. Also, I knew that both choices would be distancing for an audience, but I knew that the ‘Open City’ version might be more so.

Author: Dave Calhoun

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