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23.5 DEGREES- Valkyrie: Claus' Courageous, Clumsy Crusade
"It's a military operation--nothing goes according to plan."
By Professor W
January 03, 2009
Hitler the Standard Bearer by Hubert Lanzinger (1935)
© Hubert Lanzinger
I really wasn’t expecting much from Tom Cruise’s latest cinematic outing, Valkyrie, and so it was a pleasant surprize to be proved completely wrong. It’s a good movie, well scripted, generally very well acted and creates a moving experience. Although the outcome of the plot was a given, since we all knew that in April 1945 Hitler took his own life to avoid capture and humiliation by the invading Russian troops, this doesn’t detract from the momentum and drama of the movie. There were at least ten known plots to kill Hitler and Valkyrie details a bungled attempt by Cruise’s character, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944 with two bombs in his briefcase.
The film opens in April 1943 in North Africa, when the dynamic young officer, von Stauffenberg, is horrifically injured in an Allied attack, as a result of which he loses his right eye, right hand, and two fingers from his left hand. Digital effects (if that is the right term!) allow us to see (or not to see) Cruise’s missing hand and missing fingers. For those of us who remember Cruise having both eyes surgically removed in Minority Report, we know that the loss of von Stauffenberg’s right eye is less of a stretch. We know that Cruise can cope with such challenges.
One of the strengths of the movie is that von Stauffenberg is portrayed by Cruise very differently from the standard hero in the Hollywood mold: von Stauffenberg has physical deformities and his noble efforts are condemned to failure. His attempt to blow up the Führer fails since he lacks the physical dexterity to detonate both the bombs required to ensure Hitler’s death (why von Stauffenberg didn’t get his loyal adjutant, von Häften--who has a full set of hands and fingers!--to detonate the bombs isn’t explained in the film). Furthermore, after he has planted one live and one cold bomb within range of Adolf, the “Austrian house-painter”, von Stauffenberg refuses to believe the fact that Hitler could have survived the resulting explosion, which for us viewers looked pretty fatal. His clumsiness is emblematic of the characters leading the resistance against Hitler and their disorganized, petty political infighting.
It is a refreshing change to see that all the various factions inside the German military are not presented as Darth Vader-like stereotypes of pure evil. Instead, Valkyrie’s director, Bryan Singer, gives us real human beings--in the chaotic world of the approaching collapse of Germany, which the Gnostics would have recognized--motivated by self-interest and fear for their own lives and their families’ if the plot were to fail. Von Stauffenberg’s failure in no way detracts from the phenomenal courage shown by him and his fellow conspirators. What matters is that the Valkyrie conspirators bravely tried to put an end to Hitler, not that they didn’t succeed. As von Stauffenberg’s co-conspirator, von Tresckow, says in the film: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like [Hitler]. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler's Germany.”
Although we experience von Stauffenberg as a loving family man, we learn very little about his beliefs, partially, I suspect, because there were aspects of von Stauffenberg’s persona which would be hard for a modern audience to stomach. Cruise’s performance in the movie tends slightly to the wooden, which may not be an unfair representation of an aristocratic German officer in that period. Valkyrie marks a dramatic departure for Tom Cruise whose consummate acting skills are well-known (not least from Magnolia in 1999 and A Few Good Men in 1992). Cruise, however, is Cruise, even when wearing a fat-suit and hamming it up, as in Tropic Thunder (2008). In Valkyrie Cruise does a pretty good job of not being Tom Cruise--subject, of course, to the obvious limitations!
Von Stauffenberg’s encounters with Hitler himself fall slightly flat. Hitler, played by David Bamber, comes across as a rather diminutive, petty man: a vegetarian bureaucrat, with a slightly unnerving affection for his German shepherd dog, Blondi. A powerful, taciturn dictator, yet one who is prepared to sign--without reading it--a document tabled by von Stauffenberg, detailing a plan which could have brought down the Nazi regime if it had ever been implemented. Any actor who played Hitler on screen with Cruise would have been hard-pressed to establish a screen presence. After all, Cruise had already encountered on screen the pure evil of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Whoever played Hitler would have had to make a pretty strong impression to out-act Jack Nicholson’s brilliant Colonel Jessep in his confrontation with Mr C. The problem is that we know, or think we know, so much about the Führer that it’s an almost impossible role for an actor to play.
The fact that nearly all the lead roles are played by non-Germans works pretty well in the movie. It is, after all, a movie based “on real events” and this guarantees the actors a certain degree of credibility. Tom Cruise makes a pretty good fist (maybe the wrong expression!) of playing a character who is not Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt. When von Stauffenberg says, seconds before his execution by firing squad, “Long live our sacred Germany!”, we really care and we are moved.
Hollywood is at present experiencing something of a Springtime for Hitler and the Nazi era with Defiance, The Reader, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The German cinema had its Nazi “boom” four to five years ago with Downfall (2004), the powerful and convincing account of Hitler’s final days in the bunker. Almost unbearably powerful was Sophie Scholl (2005), an underrated but shattering movie describing the final six days of the “White Rose” student group in Munich who too resisted the evils of Nazism. The White Rose conspirators were all tried by the same judge as von Stauffenberg’s conspirators, Dr Roland Freisler, one of the vilest monsters thrown up in the Nazi era. Freisler summarily condemned the White Rose members to be guillotined. The Dutch film, Black Book, by Paul Verhoeven, three of whose lead actors appear in Valkyrie, followed Sophie Scholl in 2006.
From all of these movies it’s heartening to be reminded that there was no shortage of “good” Germans who hated what a living nightmare the Hitler regime had created throughout Europe (a regime which so many of them had originally wanted and voted into power) and that the underlying issues were not simply black and white. Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie continues this trend and this puts it a notch above the average Hollywood fare of heroes blithely fighting evil. (Singer will return to more standard Hollywood fare, when he directs the new Superman movie in 2011.)
It can be very dangerous to portray one side in any conflict as pure evil and the good guys as goodness personified. It’s quite easy to forget that nine hundred years ago, when Pope Urban The Second initiated the First Crusade--as a means of bringing some form of order into the violent and dissolute society of the middle ages and to recover the Holy Land from the “infidel”--this led to unbridled cruelty and violence by the Crusaders against innocent people. It’s great to see Hollywood focusing on the full palette of human motivation rather than the stereotypical black and white. Celluloid began its transition from black-and-white to colour in the late 1930s… so, it’s always a treat when movie scripts, too, evolve from monochrome.
While there is no shortage of pure evil in Sophie Scholl, Downfall, and Valkyrie, to over-simplify the whole of Nazi Germany as simply an evil regime run by evil men misses the point and allows us to underestimate the threat of similar regimes being created. After all, in April 1945 the “liberators” of Nazi Berlin, the Russian troops were unspeakably brutal, particularly, in their treatment of the women of Berlin.
Putting any small gripes aside, it’s a pretty fine movie and--like von Stauffenberg’s underlying plan itself--a valiant attempt, even though it, too, doesn’t succeed in its entirety. Now as then, however, what really matters is that Valkyrie shows that there was someone brave enough to try to make a change. As Siskel and Ebert used to say--perhaps a little cruelly in this context--Valkyrie most certainly deserves two thumbs up!