First I read the book and then several weeks later I watched the movie directed by Steven Soderbergh starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. I loved the book and hated the movie. The book sat unread for a few weeks on my coffee table. The size was slightly intimidating. If I were to make a top 10 list of the books I read this year it would be on the list.
The book follows Jake Geismar, an American journalist who lived in Berlin before World War II. The story takes place in July and August 1945. Jake is looking for Lena, the married German woman he loves, when he gets caught up in the murder of an American soldier which ties into a hunt for Lena’s husband.
The book is full of ideas. Who or what defines a “good German” from a “bad German” during World War II? Before the end of the war, the knowledge of the death camps becomes common amongst German adults. How do the Allies decide who is less guilty of aiding the Nazis? Is the person who wears the Nazi pin and threatens her neighbors just as guilty as the person who drove a truck equipped with a hose from the exhaust pipe to the inside passengers or the scientist who determined how many calories a day were needed to keep Jewish laborers alive? How can a country rebuild itself when the previous government was killing its citizens? Is the person you knew before a war who had to make difficult choices the same person afterwards?
It is also full of suspense. Geismar’s discoveries are completed through his various connections. Not a character is wasted. Some appear to be playing more than one side and it isn’t until the end that all of the alliances are revealed. One female photographer served as a sidekick and it was easy to imagine a spunky woman in the movie role. My only complaint is that some information is withheld to keep the reader from reaching the same conclusions as Geismar while information had been forthcoming earlier in the novel.
In a movie adaptation the screenwriter has a difficult job. I think the goal for this screenplay was to focus more on the espionage plot than the love story or the ideas in the book. Characters were collapsed into one person (Tobey Maguire’s part was originally two characters in the book) or had screen time but were ignored entirely. The only good thing about this movie is that I rented it from the library so it didn’t cost me anything other than time to see it. During 2008 I saw over a hundred movies and this was not near the top of my list. The book set my expectations too high.