Valkyrie (2008)

Untitled-1According to Valkyrie, there were fifteen assassination attempts on Hitler. None succeeded. Why? Was he protected by a higher power? Surely someone somewhere could have gunned him down, or shot him from a distance. In Leni Riefenstahl’s classic, Triumph Of The Will, we see Hitler in front of ridiculously large crowds, soldiers beyond count, supporters too numerous for streets to contain. And yet none of these people thought to kill him. Were they all true followers? Why do all the good people exist in small, tucked away groups? Only heaven knows.

Valkyrie tells the story of the last assassination attempt. It was probably the one that came the closest to fulfilling its mission, were it not for a strategically placed briefcase. It also tells the story of its lead perpetrator, Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise to an uncannily identical appearance), and how he had to deal with cowards in the resistance, the safety of his family, and the future of Germany. If Valkyrie does anything, it takes us right into the heart and mind of Stauffenberg, so much so that we can almost feel and think like him, and we admire him for wanting a Hitler-less future.

The film is directed by Bryan Singer, who knows exactly what to focus on without getting carried away by the immense scale of the project. We’re talking Nazis and World War II here. The scope is broad, the characters are plentiful, yet Singer is able to narrow his focus — and ours — to the people who matter. They are Stauffenberg, Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Ludwig Beck (Terrence Stamp), Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), von Haeften (Jamie Parker), and Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh). Of course, they aren’t the only ones trying to overthrow Hitler (David Bamber), but they are the only ones we need to care about.

The assassination attempt in question here is the 20 July Plot, and just in case you’re unfamiliar with it, this is what happens: Hitler has a contingency plan — codenamed Valkyrie — that permits his Reserve Army to take control of Berlin should there be an enemy uprising. von Stauffenberg wants to place Germany in good hands, and therefore rewrites Valkyrie to include Hitler’s death. He plans to kill Hitler, assert the idea that the SS are staging a coup, and initiate Valkyrie. This will allow the Reserve Army to overthrow the SS, thus permitting von Stauffenberg and gang to assume control of the nation. This can only work if Hitler is dead.

But, as we all know, Hitler doesn’t die this way, even though most of Berlin believes him to be dead after a bomb, planted by von Stauffenberg, goes off in the Wolf’s Lair with Hitler inside. There is a wonderful scene where the leader of the Reserve guard battalion, Major Otto Remer (Thomas Kretschmann), arrives at the Ministry to arrest Joseph Goebbels (Harvey Friedman), under von Stauffenberg’s orders. There is a telephone call and Goebbels passes the phone to Remer. At the other end we hear “Do you recognise my voice?”. Immediately, Remer clicks his heels and swallows. Hitler is alive. Goebbels is no longer under arrest. And Remer has been duped by rebels. What follows is history.

There is a lot of suspense in Valkyrie, as one would imagine, and it mostly involves von Stauffenberg trying to execute his plan in different stages. The suspense is effective, though it made me wonder just how much of it is real and how much is conjured by Hollywood drama. Doesn’t matter. It works, mainly because it supports the story instead of driving it. Its driving force comes from its actors, not from the actors themselves, but from the people they portray. These are high-ranking officers, well-established in the Nazi Party, who thought it necessary to change the fate of Germany, knowing full well where their chosen paths would take them. Kenneth Branagh says at one point that not all Germans are like Hitler, and indeed he’s right.

Valkyrie is a good movie because it inspires me to think. I’ve seen it a few times and each time I am driven to research its events, its people, and its psychology. Nazi Germany intrigues me. Hitler intrigues me. Trying to put myself in his head is a challenge, but I’m eager to know what he used to think everyday while he spoke to evil men about the atrocities he defended. Valkyrie is a good movie because it’s succinct in its storytelling, and we care about its characters. At one point, Hitler tells von Stauffenberg “I wish all my men were like you”. If only they were.

Best Moment | For me, it’d probably the moment leading up to von Stauffenberg’s execution. You can see in his eyes fear, bravery, disappointment, a sense of betrayal, and the knowledge that he he will never again see his wife and children.

Worst Moment | Eddie Izzard’s hammy acting in the toilet scene.

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