The film was shot on black-and-white photographic film (not digital video) and is designed to imitate the appearance of film noir from the 1940s, although it also includes material - such as sex scenes and swearing - that would have been prohibited by the Production Code. Its poster is a homage to the poster for the classic film Casablanca (also a Warner Bros. film), as is the closing scene at an airport. The DVD release even presents the film in the outdated 4:3 aspect ratio that was normal for 1940s films, though the theatrical release used slightly more modern but still unusual 1.66:1 ratio.
Jacob "Jake" Geismar (played by George Clooney), an American war correspondent, returns to Berlin during the Potsdam negotiations between the Allied powers after World War II was over in Europe but before hostilities ended in Asia (). Jacob witnesses his murdered driver, a black-marketeering American soldier named Tully (played by Tobey Maguire), being fished from a river eddy, suspiciously adjacent to the Potsdam conference grounds. The corpse is discovered to be in possession of 50,000 German reichsmarks — which are later revealed to have been printed by the U.S occupying forces.
Geismar becomes entwined in both the mystery of his murdered driver and the clandestine search by both Soviet and American forces for the missing German Emil Brandt (the title character, played by Christian Oliver). He becomes more involved in both mysteries as his investigation intersects with his search for Lena Brandt (played by Cate Blanchett), a German Jew — and Emil's wife — with whom Geismar had been in a relationship prior to the war. Lena has survived the Holocaust by doing "what she had to" to stay alive — early in the film this is assumed to be just prostitution, but Lena, in reality, holds a darker secret of complicity and guilt.
In the film, Emil Brandt is a former SS officer who had been the secretary of Franz Bettmann, Chief Production Engineer of the V-2 rocket at concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora/Mittelwerk. (Bettmann is only a minor character in the film; he appears to be based on the real Arthur Rudolph.) The Soviets, the Americans, and the British all try to get hold of Emil Brandt, for different reasons. The Americans have already detained Bettmann in a safehouse and intend to transport him to the U.S. as part of their Operation Overcast/Paperclip to have him work on their own rocket program (cf. Wernher von Braun). In the film, they are fully aware of Bettmann's role at Camp Dora and know about the slave labour used in the V-2 program, but want to cover up his involvement (because they could not lawfully employ a known war criminal), which includes eliminating Emil Brandt, whose testimony or written notes would prevent their whitewashing of Bettmann.
Geismar, in his attempts to get his former lover, Lena, out of Berlin, gets more and more involved in the search for Emil Brandt. At one point, Lena gives Emil's notes on Camp Dora to Geismar. When Lena and Geismar try to hand Emil Brandt over to the American prosecutor charged with handling war crimes cases, they are intercepted by the American authorities who want to protect Bettmann, and Brandt is murdered. But Geismar still has Brandt's notebooks, which he now trades in to the war crimes investigators of the U.S. Army (who have turned out to be in league with the other American authorities - the ones who want to keep that evidence confidential to whitewash Bettmann) in exchange for a Persilschein (a denazification document) and a visa for Lena, such that she can leave to England or the U.S. (that's not clear in the film).
Through a minor character of a Jewish owner of a pawn shop who survived the Holocaust with his legs amputated, the film refers to the Nazi human experimentation, in particular to bone transplantation experiments as they were done at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
|Principal Cast & Characters|
|George Clooney||as Captain Jacob "Jake" Geismar|
|Cate Blanchett||as Lena Brandt|
|Tobey Maguire||as Corporal Patrick Tully|
|Beau Bridges||as Colonel Muller|
|Tony Curran||as Danny|
|Leland Orser||as Captain Bernie Teitel|
|Jack Thompson||as Congressman Breimer|
|Robin Weigert||as Hannelore|
|Ravil Isyanov||as General Sikorsky|
|Dave Power||as Lieutenant Hasso Schaeffer|
|Christian Oliver||as Emil Brandt|
The film imitates the appearance of films from Classical Hollywood. Most of the scenes were shot on soundstages and on Universal Studios' backlot, and were then edited with archival Russian footage and archived film from Corbis. Although the finished film is in black and white, it was shot in color because this allowed the use of faster film than available black-and-white film stocks, and afforded the ability to use 'green screen' techniques. The color was then reduced in post-production through the use of a digital intermediate to a grainier black and white, in order to blend with the carefully restored archival material.
While one critic greatly appreciated the film, the film received generally poor reviews, with many critics complaining the film was too reliant on style and did not concentrate on the building of characters.
The film made $76,817 opening weekend in only 5 theaters and grossed $1,308,696 domestic and $4,606,212 overseas for a total gross of $5,914,908 making it a box office disappointment due to its $32 million dollar budget.