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Film Review: Valkyrie

Valkyrie (2008; Directed by Bryan Singer)

Like many Hollywood protagonists over the past seven decades, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) hates Nazis and believes that they are destroying Germany and, to a lesser extent, threatening Europe and the wider world. Also like many of those protagonists, he yearns to do something about it. Unlike most of this continuity of Nazi-haters, however, Stauffenberg works for the Nazis and their Führer, Adolf Hitler (David Bamber), and fairly high up the command structure of the Wehrmacht, too.

Recovering from the loss of an eye, a hand, and all but three of his fingers in North Africa, Stauffenberg is approached by a general even higher up the chain, Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), with a tantalizing offer to act decisively on the bitter disdain for Hitler’s leadership that he expresses in a letter home from Tunisia (Cruise’s voiceover of the letter’s contents begins in German before transitioning to English, the spoken language of the rest of the film’s dialogue, a minor but elegant and appreciated acknowledgement of a common linguistic conceit of American films telling foreign stories).

Olbricht and Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), whose recent attempt to assassinate Hitler with a bomb hidden inside a bottle of Cointreau failed and got a previous collaborator arrested by the Gestapo, inculcate Stauffenberg into their wide-ranging conspiracy to kill Hitler, seize control of the German government in a lightning coup, and negotiate a peace settlement with the Allies whose grip on the Reich is ever tightening. Well, the German Resistance plotters had not actually gotten as far as considering the second and third parts of the plan yet, or indeed anything past the moment of the Führer’s death, which the meticulous and driven Stauffenberg (he’d make a heck of a Nazi if he wanted to) finds shocking and sets about to remedy immediately.

His remedy is suggested to him during a bombing raid at his Berlin home, as shuddering impacts set a gramophone record of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries skipping (the real-life Stauffenberg despised Wagner, which is surprisingly one of the larger historical inaccuracies in a film uncharacteristically close to the true events upon which it is based). Stauffenberg proposed a re-writing of the protocols of Operation Valkyrie, an established contingency plan for a national crisis calling for the rapid deployment of the Reserve Army to restore order and stabilize matters (martial law, basically). Once Hitler has been taken out, the SS would be blamed and accused of fomenting a coup, the Reserve Army would disarm and arrest civilian Nazi leaders, and the army leadership at the heart of the conspiracy would secure control of the country’s civil affairs. An ingenious, if extremely risky and not entirely bloodless, plot, with the Reserves being duped into overthrowing the very state authorities they were ostensibly being deployed to safeguard.

Unfortunately, a successful application of Operation Valkyrie requires the general in command of the Reserves, Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), to join the plot, as only he and Hitler can initiate the protocol. Even more unfortunately, Fromm is either too loyal or too cowardly to defy his Führer, and blows off an approach by Stauffenberg and Olbricht. The need is judged to be too dire, however, and the conspiracy proceeds without Fromm’s cooperation (he can always be locked in a cellar at the critical moment, after all). Stauffenberg himself will execute the assassination-by-bomb at Hitler’s secret Wolf’s Lair before rushing back to Berlin to coordinate the seizure of power.

One hardly need be a WWII history buff to realize that the so-called 20 July Plot was not successful. This makes Valkyrie a depiction of a heroic failure, an underappreciated example of German defiance against the historic monster who had marshaled a nation to his nefarious ends. Director Bryan Singer allows his film, tightly constructed and taut like a bowstring, to hunker down into the desperate moral ambivalence of the plotters. If they do not, for as much a fleeting moment, express philosophical misgivings about killing their leader for the greater good, they do appreciate (or are dragged into this awareness by Stauffenberg, whose robotic, hyper-masculinized sense of duty makes for a good match with Cruise’s particular thespianic capacities) that merely taking out Hitler is not sufficient to defeat his cause. That puts Valkyrie, whatever its faults, well ahead of a recent meme-worthy New York Times Magazine Twitter poll posing a moral dilemma related to time-travelling infanticide.

Mounted with skill, tenacity, and redolent of real tension despite the foregone narrative conclusion, Valkyrie is notable among WWII films for its refusal to over-simplify the events it depicts in either their storytelling detail or their moral dimensions. It depicts internal divisions in Germany as the worm turns in the war’s latter stages, and finds courage and sacrifice among the usually unquestioned villains of Second World War narratives. But it’s also a portrait of an elite resistance quite removed from the dangerous underground efforts across Nazi-occupied Europe. Germany’s 1% also thought Hitler was terrible, Valkyrie is saying, and look what they tried to do about it!

It is giving Valkyrie entirely too little credit to suggest that it attempts to absolve Germans of historical guilt and complicity in Hitler’s destructive warmongering or in his genocidal Final Solution by dint of this pyrrhic attempted coup. It does suggest, however, that the 20 July Plot came much closer to succeeding than it really did, and dramatizes its gradual, inexorable dismantling with excruciating inevitability that presents as high tragedy. A short but key conversation between Stauffenberg and Hitler concerns the mythic valkyries that figured in Wagner’s operas, which the Führer so adored. Angelic but terrible and foreboding servants of the pagan gods, valkyries do the bidding of these higher powers. Valkyrie is a story of men (and some women) who refused to follow the orders of the temporal state authorities while attempting to fulfill what they felt were higher moral principles. These particular valkyries are doubly-inscribed in ironic ambivalence, but above all are deeply human, and defied their leader’s mad disavowals of human decency in an important if oft-forgotten episode of WWII history.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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  1. June 9, 2016 at 8:53 pm

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