If you're going to try to make a movie that looks as if it was made 60 years ago, it's probably best not to directly remind people of "Casablanca." Steven Soderbergh shot "The Good German," a World War II thriller, in black and white with 1940s camera equipment and techniques. But if, as it appears, he was going for re-creation and not homage, one is tempted to suggest he take a second look at the period.
There's professionalism if not artistry in those old movies. "The Good German" can seem like a high-school project by comparison. Journalist Jake Geismar (George Clooney) has just arrived outside Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference. Assigned to be driven around by the current lover (Tobey Maguire) of his ex-girlfriend (Cate Blanchett), Jake is quickly caught between a love triangle and an undercover war between the allies to grab up Germany's scientists.
The scientist stuff provides "The Good German" with that credibility much coveted today: telling a "true" story. The underlying romance between Jake and his ex harkens to several late-1940s classics, "The Third Man" and "A Foreign Affair" chief among them. It's symptomatic of many of today's movies, however, that "The Good German" gives basic storytelling elements the back seat in favor of setting a mood and loyalty to historical accuracy.
As a thriller, "The Good German" is fatally untaught. Doesn't everyone already know that America dipped into Germany's Nazi rocket-scientist pool as part of the arms race with Russia? And if everyone doesn't know, what makes it a mystery they'll care about Clooney's unwavering look of concern? Or perhaps Soderbergh thought his eerie, over-lighted sets, which look more like a sci-fi scene than Potsdam, would do the trick. "The Good German" reaches for the noir sin and cityscapes of the 1940s, but it's more convincing as a prequel to "Sin City." (R) S