The Good German


*No specific plot spoilers*

One of the things I really appreciate about my training in literary analysis is that it gave me the ability to think of films and novels as completely separate works of art.  So many people I know decide how “good” a movie is by how well it retells the novel upon which is was based.  So often, those same people are profoundly disappointed; I don’t know about you, but I’ve rarely encountered a film that did its novel justice.  That I can look at novels and films as entirely separate from one another lets me better appreciate each for what they are, and gives me an opportunity to use each to better understand or interpret the other.

That being said, I was unimpressed with The Good German, and my disappointment has nothing to do with the fact that the novel and the film were only distantly related.

the_good_german_poster-2The Good German is based on the novel of the same name.  Written by Joseph Kanon, the book follows the story of an American journalist in post-WWII Berlin who finds himself reunited with his former lover while simultaneously entangled in a web of murder, kidnapping, and international intrigue among the rubble of the war-ravaged city.

The central theme of the story, as I understood it, was heavily dependent on how the reader defined exactly what a “good” German was; the inner turmoil that each of the characters grappled with was just as important – if not more so – as the external adventures, and it was essentially up to the reader to decide who was “good,” who was not, and where the line between the two was drawn.  The motivations of the novel’s characters were never entirely clear, though the central love story of the book – while complicated and often difficult – was enough to anchor the rest of the story.

In the film version, the plot line is far less complex; so, too, are most of the main characters, though one is an amalgamation of characters from the novel and, as such, is a far more complicated than her paper counterpart (I was profoundly disappointed that one of those story lines wasn’t revealed until literally the final scene of the film; I found that particular plot line to be intriguing and intensely satisfying in the novel and thought that it could have been used to much greater advantage in the film).  The lovers in the film lacked depth and chemistry, and both of them felt very stiff and unconvincing.

A lot of the underlying implications of the novel – one of them being the stench of the Holocaust that settled over everything and everyone in the story, whether they were willing to give it voice or not – were essentially absent from the film.  The film toyed with the idea of the importance of the Holocaust and the legacy it left with German people when the war was over, but it never reached far enough to do the idea any kind of justice.  It was less a major plot device than an opportunity for a couple of throwaway lines.

The movie was filmed in a style that was meant to recall old black and whites – my husband commented that the film felt a lot like Casablanca – and I suspect that a good deal of archival footage from post-war Berlin was used.  I found the filming technique a little distracting, but I settled into it after a while (though I was caught up short once or twice when the shadows fell across the actors’ faces in strange ways).

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this film.  Despite my talent with – and geeky enjoyment of – novel-to-film comparison and analysis, this movie didn’t hold its own as a singular piece of art enough to inspire any further thinking on my part.


2 Responses to “The Good German”

  1. Kizz Says:

    I think the style is actually at least partly to blame for all the other issues you mention. It doesn’t lend itself to depth and exploration. It calls for things to be declamatory and relatively clear cut even. Sounds like the book had more to offer and the film makers chose the style before they began to look at what story they wanted to tell.

  2. morgan Says:

    I enjoyed the book and had planned to watch the movie, but I may not rush to do so now. I, too, have no problem accepting books and movies as separate works that may not be as tightly connected as the public may hope; in this case, it sounds like that won’t matter. I’m sure I’ll catch the movie at some point, simply out of curiosity, but for now I’ll look forward to the book discussion.

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