Earsplittenloudenboomer: Valkyrie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 3, 2009)

A patchy uprising: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie.

One of my favorite  lines from Mel Brooks’ The Producers is uttered by psychedelicized thespian “Lorenzo St. Dubois” (Dick Shawn), star of the Broadway musical romp Springtime for Hitler. After “Goebbels” (David Patch) carelessly tosses a lit reefer into a vase, making it explode, our “Hitler” turns  to the audience with a wink and bemoans in mock consternation: “They try…man, how they try!”

Man, how they tried. By 30 April 1945, the day Adolph Hitler finally put us all out of his misery by treating himself to a cyanide cocktail, followed by a Walther PPK 7.65mm caliber chaser, there had been no less than 17 (documented) schemes/attempts to take him out.

The would-be assassins ranged from military officers (captains to field marshals) to members of his  inner circle (including Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who toyed with the idea of sending poison gas down the ventilator shaft of his Berlin bunker in 1945). It looked like Hitler was going to be tougher to get rid of than Rasputin.

The most famous attempt, code-named “Valkyrie”, was spearheaded by an idealistic German nationalist named Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg, an army staff officer who ingratiated himself into a well-organized consortium within the German resistance.

On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg, who had finagled himself into a position to attend Hitler’s military strategy meetings, managed to smuggle a briefcase full of timed plastic explosives into a conference at the “Wolf’s Lair”. He slipped the briefcase under the table, close to where Hitler was positioned, excused himself to take an “important call”, and waited outside for the earth-shattering ka-boom.

Once all hell broke loose, Stauffenberg made a beeline to Berlin to initiate the next phase of the plot, which would require neutralizing the SS and mobilizing the reserve army (under an emergency contingency government reorganization plan that ironically had been set up by Hitler himself). It almost worked (except for the part where they forgot to check Hitler’s pulse before proceeding with Step 2). The day did not end well for Stauffenberg and several other key conspirators; they did not live to see the next sunrise.

This true-life tale contains all the thrills, suspense and complex plotting of a ripping WW2 yarn by Alistair MacLean, except that in this case, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are all…the “bad guys” (i.e., based on the traditional Hollywood depiction of WW2 era Germans). This presents an interesting dilemma for a filmmaker. It is only in recent years that we have seen films that (for better or for worse) posit a relatively objective view of what the Second World War looked like from the perspective of the Germans.

Now, I am by no means an apologist (I had many distant relatives who perished in concentration camps, and the very sight of a swastika makes me physically ill) but it is a fact that not every single person who lived in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was a blindly obedient member of the National Socialist Party who worshiped Hitler. There was actually an active military and civilian domestic resistance movement that flourished during that era.

One of the earliest films to lurch in that direction was Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions (1958) which featured among its three principal characters a conflicted Nazi lieutenant (Marlon Brando) who was devoted to duty, yet palpably repulsed by the inhumanity being perpetrated in the name of the Fatherland. Cabaret (1972) tentatively touched on the idea of the anti-Nazi sentiment within Germany, but the story ends just as Hitler is coming to power, so in historical context, his full capacity for avarice and evil would have still been an unknown quantity to the general populace at the time.

Das Boot (1981) was probably the first film to portray members of the Nazi era German military in a “sympathetic” light and was one of the first to feature German military characters expressing anti-Hitler sentiments. Then again, this was not a Hollywood production (it was originally produced for German TV). And tangentially, we have Schindler’s List (1993) which cheers for an unlikely war hero-an (initially) opportunistic Nazi businessman who profited from the abundance of cheap labor from concentration camps.

All of which now inevitably (unavoidably?) brings us to the new Tom Cruise vehicle, Valkyrie, reuniting director Bryan Singer with his The Usual Suspects screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie (who co-scripted with Nathan Alexander). Cruise stars as Stauffenberg; stern of jaw, steely of gaze and nattily resplendent in polished jackboots and matching eye patch. To the chagrin of some, he is also bereft of a German accent. This is a moot point, because most of his co-stars sport British accents. Since we know  everybody in this story is German, it’s but a momentary distraction (like when Tony Curtis informs Spartacus that he is “…a singah of sooangs.”)

Singer showcases his prowess for well-staged action sequences in a slam-bang battle scene early on the film that depicts how Stauffenberg suffered his disfiguring wounds. As he recovers from his injuries, we catch a glimpse of his family life, and glean  a warm relationship with his children and his devoted wife (Carice van Houten). As the tides of the war turn against the Reich, Stauffenberg comes to realize that Hitler’s hopes for victory are becoming more delusional by the day and can only lead to the complete annihilation of his beloved Germany, so he decides that he must be stopped.

The film recreates several other assassination attempts by Stauffenberg and his associates which preceded the conference room bombing at Wolf’s Lair in July 1944. The final attempt is quite riveting, tautly directed and full of nail-biting suspense. Unfortunately, however the film is marred by an abrupt ending; the split second after Cruise has his Big Death Scene, it’s time to fade to black and roll credits (it’s probably in his contract rider).

Another problem is Cruise himself. Yes, he is a Movie Star, right down to those dazzling choppers, but try as he might over the years (bless his heart), he is just simply not cut out to be a character actor.

The real Stauffenberg was a complex person; a fervent German nationalist, an aristocrat, politically conservative and introspectively philosophical by nature. All I kept seeing up on that screen was…Tom Cruise with an eye patch. Don’t get me wrong, when a part is tailor made for his particular energy (Risky Business, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia) he can be undeniably appealing and genuinely charismatic.

Two supporting performances are particular standouts; the always-excellent Tom Wilkinson as General Fromm, and Bill Nighy as Genral Olbricht. A couple other venerable Brits are on board (Terrence Stamp and Kenneth Branagh) but they aren’t given too much room to flex (perhaps Producer Tom didn’t want to be upstaged).

Singer does have a keen eye for historical detail. Several key scenes were filmed on location, most significantly the recreation of Stauffenberg’s execution, which was staged in the Berlin courtyard where the actual incident took place (that courtyard now contains a memorial to the conspirators, now regarded as national heroes in Germany). History buffs will likely be more forgiving regarding the film’s shortcomings, and just enjoy it as a straightforward WW2 action thriller. Tom Cruise fans will see it regardless of critical opinion, and the rest…may want to just wait for the DVD.

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