American film has never been nice to Nazis. Typically they are portrayed as psychotic megalomaniacs, dandy-ish stiffs, or anonymous henchmen. But in Valkyrie, Nazis get a new look. Director Bryan Singer’s interesting effort depicts an ambitious attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler by a group of disillusioned Germans. The film follows Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) through his unbelievably bold attempt to kill Hitler and instigate a coup against the Nazi regime. Although the real story of von Stauffenberg is a fantastically interesting World War II tale, Valkyrie only slightly taps into the excitement and magnanimity of the actual event.
Von Stauffenberg’s story is irresistible. In the final days of the war, many Germans had grown disillusioned with Hitler’s promises for peace. The German power elite recognized that Hitler had become out of touch and were eager for change. Seeing the flaws behind his vision, several resistance movements began to blossom in Germany. Von Stauffenberg’s was one of the most ambitious.
“We have to show the world that not all of us were like him,” von Stauffenberg says. An esteemed war veteran, von Stauffenberg lost his eye, hand, and several fingers previously in battle, rose through the ranks in the Nazi regime and gathered support from many other high ranking dissenters along the way. Von Stauffenberg’s plan—named Valkyrie—was extremely bold: kill Hitler, accuse the S.S. of treason, and use the military to take over the state. His personal involvement in the plan was extremely dangerous. He had to infiltrate Hitler’s highest command, gain personal access to Hitler himself, then personally leave a suitcase bomb next to the Führer.
Risky? Exciting? Yes. But history spoils the ending. The most effective assassination attempt against Hitler’s life fails. Von Stauffenberg’s plan almost works, but slips away. In-fighting and oversight in the resistance movement weakened their efforts. Valkyrie, the movie, falls victim to the same problems: glazing over important details and failing to create a well-realized plan. The film does not fail completely (and neither did the plan; Hitler committed suicide a few months after von Stauffenberg’s attempt), yet it never engages in the way it is supposed to.
Heist movies typically follow the same formula: drawing of the plans, recruiting the team, executing the heist, and dealing with the aftermath. Valkyrie is essentially no different in structure. Yet, it differs vastly from Singer’s exceptional L.A. noir The Usual Suspects, which masterfully ties together many characters and story into a tight knot.
Valkyrie, however, lacks the carefully orchestrated flow that The Usual Supects flaunts. Valkyrie creates a strange paradox wherein it feels like the expository scenes are hurried and overly long at the same time. The whole section leading up to the assassination attempt is wrought with an identity crisis as well. Should it focus on von Stauffenberg’s family, or perhaps his war record? How do you make a bunch of old men plotting revolution interesting? The fine cast of Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, and Terence Stamp as von Stauffenberg’s Nazi co-conspirators certainly helps.
Valkyrie’s most compelling visions come during the actual assassination attempt and the implosion of their plan afterward. The scene of von Stauffenberg walking straight into the lion’s den with the bomb is pretty thrilling. The film’s coda picks up the pace as the coup designed by von Stauffenberg and his cohorts begins to unfold. The glimmer of hope that is Hitler’s Germany quickly dissolves. The dominos begin to fall, but stop at the last moment. Valkyrie does the same. As the movie starts rolling, it ends hurriedly, right at the moment it gets interesting.
Another curious directorial choice was forgoing German accents. No one in the film had one. Sure, films require a suspension of belief, but it becomes confusing when “Germans” have a polyglot of U.K and American accents. Then there’s Tom Cruise, whose accent and demeanor were unabashedly American. No matter how much you dress him up, Cruise is Cruise. At no point can you divorce him from his outlandish off-screen persona. It’s not that he does a bad job, but there are many actors that could have done much better. Maybe another actor could have even attempted a German accent.
This Americanization of German culture seems to be an intentional decision by Singer or the studio execs. It is distancing from the idea that the film is a “foreign” film and even pushes it away from an allegation of Nazi sympathizing. After all, on-screen Nazis are never real people; they are all evil. Valkyrie faintly tries to show Nazis as Germans who bought into an ideologically bankrupt political party. But, it never delves into the reasons why millions of Germans and other people around the world bought into the Nazi agenda. Nazism didn’t come out of nowhere, and millions of adherents didn’t just jump on the bandwagon.
The integrity of a historical film is founding its commitment to history, and Valkyrie is unwilling to look the social milieu that made everyday Germans become Nazis. It seems that Singer, and most likely the studio execs, were attempting to make the film relatable to “average American” audiences, not just history buffs. The “Tom Cruise Nazi Movie” is not blockbuster material, so Americanizing Valkyrie makes more economic sense. The lack of confidence in the film shows through in these directorial decisions. Ultimately, these oversights just take away from the realism of von Stauffenberg’s heroic acts. He was a brave German trying to win his country back. He was never the all-American hero.
For Artist Direct: 12.22.08