March 2024

Valkyrie (2008)

valkyrie-cast-cruiseDIRECTOR: Bryan Singer


Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Eddie Izzard, Jamie Parker, Thomas Kretschmann, Christian Berkel, Tom Hollander, David Bamber


During his twelve-year reign, Adolf Hitler survived over forty known assassination attempts, at least fifteen of which were made by Germans. But the most hated man of the 20th century was also one of the most extraordinarily lucky. Something always managed to go wrong; Hitler would cut speeches or conferences short, avoiding timed bomb blasts, the explosives themselves would fail to detonate, and the forces arrayed against him often proved to be unfortunately uncoordinated and indecisive. The final, most famous, and most nearly successful attempt on Hitler’s life came on July 20, 1944, orchestrated by a group of rebel German military officers and politicians spearheaded by decorated injured war hero Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg. The July 20th assassination attempt has actually been portrayed in a series of productions over the years- 1951’s The Desert Fox, two almost simultaneous German films of the ‘50s, Jackboot Mutiny and July 20th, the 1988 miniseries War and Remembrance, the little-known 1990 TV movie The Plot to Kill Hitler, starring the late Brad Davis, and a 2004 German television miniseries titled Stauffenberg, starring Sebastian Koch as the doomed Count. Valkyrie is of course the best-known of these films, and the first to give a big-budget mainstream Hollywood treatment to the story, starring superstar Tom Cruise (who also produced) and directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, X-Men).

We start in 1943 Tunisia, where disillusioned Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), disgusted by the destruction Hitler (David Bamber) and his Nazis are bringing down on Germany, and the atrocities committed in its name, has become convinced that ‘Hitler is not only the archenemy of the entire world, but the archenemy of Germany’, and change is needed. But Stauffenberg is put out of action by an Allied strafing attack which leaves him with one eye, one hand, and three fingers. Back in Germany recuperating from his war wounds, Stauffenberg is approached by likeminded men and brought into a group of military and political officials plotting the overthrow of Hitler and his Nazi regime, including General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), retired General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben (David Schofield), Mayor Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), and Olbricht’s subordinate, Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel). As time progresses, others join the conspiracy, including Stauffenberg’s faithful adjutant Werner von Haeften (Jamie Parker), and General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard), who is in a position to cut communications between Hitler’s headquarters and Berlin but takes a little persuading. And finally there is is-he-or-isn’t-he-an-ally General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), head of the Reserve Army, a self-serving fence-sitter who pretends not to know what the plotters are up to but wants a prominent position in their new government if they succeed and may place them all under arrest to save his own skin if they do not.

Valkyrie is, for the most part, a meticulously historically faithful dramatization of the planning and execution of the July 20th assassination attempt on Hitler, as well as the confusion and disorganization in the following hours as everything started to go awry. Singer kicks off with two high-momentum sequences that get the ball rolling: first is the only real action scene in the movie, the Allied strafing attack that leaves Stauffenberg with an eyepatch and an empty sleeve, and next Hitler’s plane escort making a thunderous arrival at German headquarters on the Eastern Front, where General von Tresckow and an aid scramble to set a bomb to place onboard Hitler’s plane hidden inside a crate of brandy, only to learn it did not detonate, forcing Tresckow to make a nerve-wracking trip to Berlin to retrieve the undiscovered bomb. After that, we settle into a lot of discussion scenes of the conspirators standing around arguing, debating, and working out plans. Along the way, there are scattered moments that feel inspired, first when Stauffenberg and his wife (Dutch actress Carice van Houten) and brood are forced to take cover during an air raid, and a bomb concussion skips the album they were playing onto Richard Wagner’s Valkyrie, giving Stauffenberg his great light bulb moment: appropriating Hitler’s own emergency plan Operation Valkyrie, designed to mobilize the Reserve Army to seize Berlin in a national emergency, as the means of carrying out the coup; the story would be a manufactured SS uprising, and the Reserve Army would believe they were defending their government instead of unwittingly helping overthrow it. There is also Stauffenberg’s uneasy visit to Berchtesgaden to get Hitler’s signature for the revised plans, with the Führer essentially obliviously signing his own death warrant.  History and WWII buffs are of course the most likely to find all this enthralling, but in some scenes Singer’s attempts to ratchet up the suspense will work best on those who know little about the events. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of WWII and/or of Hitler knows he was not assassinated by rebel Germans, so Singer undeniably had a bit of a challenge trying to inject tension when we already know the bomb is not going to kill Hitler. Singer handles the pivotal moment of the movie- the actual bomb blast- with about as much tension as can be expected. Unfortunately, the same workmanlike, point A to point B tediousness that slowed down the earlier scenes returns after the bomb goes off. Singer and cast and crew try to keep this all exciting, but later scenes are a little lost in montages of Stauffenberg and company burning the phone lines trying to rally forces to their cause, especially since we already see the hammer coming down on them with the inevitability of history, even if they take a while to realize it.

Another reason for the feeling of detachment is that we don’t get to know the characters very well. Valkyrie is more interested in the ‘how’ than the ‘who’ or ‘why’, with none of the plotters developed beyond the basics.  Passing mentions are made of shutting down the concentration camps and saving Europe from destruction, and we get perfunctory arguments between the political and military wings of the operation, but the ideological, political, and moral conundrums these people found themselves thrust into are only scratched at the surface.

On the other hand, Singer puts in a lot of time and effort detailing all the ways the coup came so close and then went so wrong. Stauffenberg’s inspiration to use the Reserve Army as an unwitting pawn to enforce the coup is a clever idea, but it only holds up as long as Reserve Army officer Major Remer (Thomas Kretschmann), who is loyal to Hitler, doesn’t realize what’s really going on. General Olbricht is overly cautious and disastrously hesitant when bold, fast action is desperately needed; meanwhile, Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels (Harvey Friedman) stays cooler under pressure, and in fact plays a key role in hammering the final nail in the conspiracy’s coffin.

The sight of Tom Cruise in a German uniform and an eyepatch might cause momentary snickering, but despite widespread online panning, Cruise manages to avoid falling flat on his face. I am not a particular fan of Cruise, nor do I feel he was anywhere near the ideal person to play Stauffenberg due to the large amount of offscreen baggage he brings to his recent parts, but his portrayal is fine, if not spectacular, and it’s not fair to single him out, as some have, for making no attempt at a German accent, as none of his mostly British co-stars do either (the exceptions being the two authentic Germans, Thomas Kretschmann and Christian Berkel, both of whom appeared in 2004’s German-language Downfall).  It’s also worth noting that criticizing actors for not putting on German accents verges on being a little silly when one considers that in reality, none of these characters would be speaking English in the first place.  The supporting cast, made up of a collection of distinguished British thespians, is reliably effective, but this is not an actor’s movie.  Bill Nighy, who’s done some recent comedic roles, plays it straight as the twitchy, nervous, overly cautious Olbricht. Kenneth Branagh, who can be a huge scenery-chomper, is low-key and subdued in a surprisingly small role that serves as a more sympathetic counterpart to the last time Branagh put on a WWII German uniform, as Holocaust ringleader Reinhard Heydrich in 2001’s Conspiracy (the movie includes two other Conspiracy cast members, Kevin McNally’s Mayor Goerdeler, and Ian McNeice in a smaller role as an officer loyal to the Führer who refuses to cooperate with the conspirators’ plans). Terence Stamp is his usual authoritative, dignified self, but he doesn’t get that much to do; the same can be said of Kevin McNally and David Schofield.  Carice van Houten is nice but underused as Stauffenberg’s wife Nina.  Tom Hollander is Colonel Brandt, an obnoxious aid to Hitler who seems suspicious of everyone. Eddie Izzard seems a little overwrought in his one ‘big’ scene, but the rest of the cast is fine, including Jamie Parker, Thomas Kretschmann (who between this, The Pianist, and U-571, is becoming the go-to man for movies requiring German WWII officers), and Christian Berkel, and Bernard Hill makes a brief opening appearance as an unfortunate Afrika Korps General. David Bamber’s role as Hitler mostly consists of a few scenes standing around conference tables, but the physical resemblance is enough for him to be effective when he appears.  Arguably the standout in the supporting cast is Tom Wilkinson, who gets a couple juicy scenes as his character tries to keep a foot in both camps while committing to neither.

Some see it as an oversight that the film makes no reference to Field Marshal Rommel, but Rommel was probably not an active participant; more of an omission is the absence of Stauffenberg’s brother Berthold, who supported the plot and was executed along with him. It’s also a little curious that the movie goes out of its way to paint Colonel Brandt as a creep, and then doesn’t show his ultimate fate (Brandt died from the explosion, but the movie never shows or mentions him after the bomb goes off, leaving his fate hanging). The climax makes for a poignant ending, as the conspirators to a man face their ends with a defiant dignity, even if we didn’t get to know them too well. Some accuse the film of glorifying Nazis, but this is a feeble and ignorant argument, as none of the principal plotters were in fact members of the Nazi Party, and General Beck and Carl Goerdeler in particular had opposed Hitler since before the war even began, nullifying the oft-made accusation that the conspirators conveniently turned on Hitler only when he started to lose (not to mention the ridiculousness of accusing any ‘Nazi glorifying’ of coming from a movie directed by the Jewish and openly gay Bryan Singer- incidentally, despite or perhaps because of his background, Nazis are a recurring theme in Singer’s films, including Apt Pupil and the prologue of X-Men revealing villain Magneto’s Holocaust childhood). Overall, Valkyrie is a competently-crafted dramatization of an event that is often neglected in examinations of WWII, but a historical docudrama about a German conspiracy to assassinate Hitler isn’t the kind of movie that sweeps in blockbuster-level crowds, and its appeal to broad audiences is in doubt. It will be the war buffs who already know the story who will likely get the most out of the film.