I’ve made no bones about my love of Thomas Newman‘s work. And THE GOOD GERMAN is one of my favorites. The film is director Steven Soderbergh’s interesting, yet ultimately misguided, attempt to film a 1940’s film 60 years too late. Based on Joseph Kanon’s 2001 bestseller, George Clooney stars as a journalist who returns to Berlin in the months following World War II and gets mixed up in political and romantic intrigue with his prewar mistress (Cate Blanchett).
Much of the pre-release publicity for the film focused on Soderbergh’s gimmick of filming with static camera lenses from the ’40s to achieve the proper grainy black-and-white look. However, Soderbergh spent so much of his energy focused on that aspect of the production that he failed to write a cohesive screenplay with characters that were compelling. And the comparisons to the classic CASABLANCA, right down to the poster art, didn’t help. Though the gimmick is interesting for a while, the film ultimately left me cold and unsatisfied. But it does have two assets: Blanchett’s riveting performance and Newman’s musical homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood film scores.
Soderbergh wanted the film to have a period film right down to the music. The temp tracks for the film was largely drawn from old Max Steiner music of the 1940s, which provided a challenge for Newman. “The issue was, how do you preserve a sense of style,” he explained in a Variety interview, “and allow the movie to play out, help clarify the drama? My intention was to help an audience remain interested.”
Newman employed a traditional 90-piece orchestra (with the addition of a mandolin) and recorded on his father’s, Alfred Newman, old soundstage at 20th Century Fox. “I wanted to be true to the style of the movie,” said Newman, “and at the same time be dramatically accommodating, and I wanted to make sure that the style didn’t get in the way of the drama and call attention to itself, even though there was going to be a truly defined period style to the music.”
Serving as a sort of overture to the drama, the main titles grab our attention with a muscular, dramatic main theme for strings and trumpet, punctuated by lower brass, timpani, and cymbal, followed by the beautiful love theme for Lena (Blanchett). Usually played on a solo violin backed by the complement of strings, the theme is heartbreakingly lovely, conveying the weary loneliness of Lena who has sunk to unimaginable depths just to survive the war. The two themes mirror each other in their dotted rhythms, with the main theme ascending and the love theme descending.
Concluding the main titles is a major-key theme that occurs only once early in the film. As Tully (Toby Maguire) and Jake (Clooney) talk of easier times before the war, Newman’s theme captures nostalgia and “home” in a brief twenty seconds.
What makes the score more than mere pastiche are the typical Newman harmonies and rhythms. They give the music a contemporary edge without taking the viewer out of the period of the film.
Warner Bros. must have known it had a bomb on its hands since it was released in very few theaters and quickly sank from sight. I had to go to some dinky little theater on the Lower East Side to see it. Reports leaked out of audiences laughing at the screen and/or walking out in the middle of the film. Even film score fans did not totally agree on Newman’s work.
With echoes of Steiner, Herrmann, Waxman, and Newman’s own father, Alfred, THE GOOD GERMAN was by far and away the standout film score of 2006. Newman’s rich orchestral sound was a welcome throwback to an earlier period in film score history that will never come again, and yet still maintained the composer’s trademark harmonic and rhythmic style. The music added dramatic tension and poignancy to a script sorely in need of both.
Newman’s Oscar nomination was richly deserved and yet, even with the composer’s status in the community, still came as a surprise, especially given the poor box office reception. While it stood little chance of winning, Newman remained proud of his nomination: “I’m really honored that people responded to it because how many people saw the movie?…. I stand behind the music, so I was curious as to what would be nominated, but I didn’t expect it. When I ponder on it, I think that people really must have responded to the music, and that’s always a great thing to think about.”