Hitler’s Nemesis

A closer look underneath Bryan Siner’s Valkyrie

On The Town | Philipp Conrad | February 2009

Soldiers gather after Operation Valkery (Photo: United Artists)

Walking out of the theater after seeing Valkyrie, emotions overflowed. This epic drama of the final attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20th, 1944 is heartbreaking – the film succeeds, and the mission fails, shaping everything that has happened since. And you realize perhaps for the first time, how different things could have been

This joint U.S.- German production by director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) is an updated and more in-depth retelling of Operation Valkyrie, the code name for the 6th attempt by a group of German officers to execute a coup d’état and take Germany back from the Nazi dictatorship. It stars look-alike Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and an all-star supporting cast that includes Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nigthy, brilliant camera work by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, and Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s well-crafted screenplay.

Within the first ten minutes of the film, two things become clear to any WWII movie buff: The first is that Singer has seen German writer/director Jochen Baier’s film Stauffenberg (aka Operation Valkyrie); he has built on its strengths and then some.  The opening scenes of Valkyrie feel almost like a copy/paste from the Baier version, in places using almost identical camera angles as its German counterpart, to capture the tensions in this extraordinary story.

But in addition, this newer version reveals a fascinating glimpse of an earlier assassination attempt – one of six organized by this group of officers – where a bottle of Cointreau was rigged to blow up on an airplane with Hitler on board.  The bomb fails to go off, leaving a scene hanging with anxiety waiting for explosion or detection at any moment.

The second is that Singer has no plans to stick all-too-rigidly to the details when they interfere with the larger truth; according to history, that Cointreau bottle was poisoned, not rigged to explode.  Historical accuracy aside though, Singer offers us a far better insight into the characters of the German officers who collaborated in the attempt on Hitler’s life, and he does it with state-of-the-art Hollywood elegance.

One of the movie’s strengths was its dedicated team of supporting actors, especially Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow and Nigthy as General Friedrich Olbricht.  Olbricht and Tresckow are chief amongst the coalition of men conspiring to take out Hitler when they recruit Stauffenberg.

They provide a powerful contrast to Singer’s Stauffenberg. Unlike Cruise, their faces are laced with the weight of their actions.  Each is a man of reputation, each carries a certain onus of responsibility, and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the mission’s success.

Evidence suggests that Valkyrie makes Stauffenberg out to be more of a hero than he was in real life. When he first encounters the other generals, they seem to be at odds with each other. Singer’s Stauffenberg steps into the room with the optimism of fresh-blood filled with tactical ideas and courage.  Critic Jens Jessen of Die Zeit describes the depiction of the resistance as a group of sappy old rulers who first need Stauffenberg to show them how to proceed.

Also notable, Hailna Reijn delivers a very strong performance as one of the co-conspirators, Margarethe von Oven.  While Cruise’s character shows practically no emotion, including for his own family whose lives he is putting at risk, Margarethe serves as an outlet of sorts. She tries in vain to place a call home for him. With each attempt, the tension builds, and as she realizes he will never speak with them again. She bursts into tears for Stauffenberg’s loss.

The selection of Cruise became the occasion for heated debate in Germany because of the actor’s ties to Scientology, considered a cult in Germany and thus illegal. Perhaps because of this, much of his acting in Valkyrie looks strained.  It has been widely reported that many Germans felt having Cruise in the role falsified the kind of man Stauffenberg really was.  Much of his performance feels tense, like an overly complex character undergoing an inner struggle out of reach for the audience.  Almost numb, Cruise manoeuvers his way stiffly through the story, holding us at a distance.

Still, the resemblance is uncanny, as comparison photos make clear.  To most moviegoers, however, the man wearing the German military uniform is none other than the dare-devil from Mission: Impossible. Maybe that was an intentional subtext: if anybody had a chance to take out Hitler, it would be Tom Cruise.

It’s all not enough though, as Baier showed in the earlier film, with a much more troubled and emotionally dynamic Stauffenberg.  Forced to choose between what was right for Germany and what was right for his family, the audience recognizes this kind of man, a loving father who is upset to see his young sons giving a Nazi salute.

Baier also presents a greater and more daunting portrayal of Adolf Hitler, even though we catch only one glimpse of him when Stauffenberg makes the attempt on his life.  In a truly horrific moment, the camera reveals the back of the military master and tyrant leaning over his map-table, carefully plotting with dozens of generals looking on.  When he turns around briefly and looks up, he glares at Stauffenberg briefly showing two ghostly and possessed eyes – sending chills down any viewer’s spine.

In Valkyrie, actor David Bamber (The Bourne Identity and Miss Potter) is a much weaker Hitler.  Sitting in a chair, petting a surly dog, and struggling to move between his sofa-chair and his map-table, he seems bland, without the edge of potential violence eye witnesses describe. Baier’s horrific Hitler gives us a better  understanding for the resistance’s failure.

Singer’s film focuses on Stauffenberg, turning him into the only man who is completely focused, whose intentions are clear. In a strange moralistic moment, Cruise bursts out accusing other officers of only wanting to kill Hitler for their own ends – for fame or power.

On the whole, Singer provided a more polished and updated look at an important event, which reminds us that there were influential people in Germany who were not wholeheartedly behind Adolf Hitler’s regime, and who gave their lives to do something about it.

Perhaps though, he may have taken too many liberties in reaching for a suspenseful war epic. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was no cookie-cutter action hero, and with Cruise in the role, audiences come away confused: this is not a formulaic Hollywood blockbuster, but also not quite enough of an authentic historical drama to be completely convincing.

Still, these were remarkable men of Operation Valkyrie, who risked everything to liberate Germany from the vise-like grip of Hitler’s Nazis, and we do well to honor their memory once again.

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