WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: 1943: The war is turning against the Third Reich, but Hitler and those closest to him press on with fighting on several fronts and their ‘Final Solution’ against the Jews. Convinced that Hitler’s plans will lead to Germany’s ruin, high-ranking members of the army devise a plan to assassinate the Fuhrer and use the reserve army to prevent the SS from seizing control of the country.
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) doesn’t much like the way World War II is going. Losing his right hand and left eye in North Africa, he despairs of Hitler’s strategies; so when he’s approached by Major-General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to join in a top-secret plan to kill Hitler and establish a government with General Beck (Terence Stamp) as President and Kevin McNally’s Dr Carl Goerdeler, he’s interested.
Working with overly cautious General Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Stauffenberg concludes that the best way of taking power is by subtly amending ‘Operation Valkyrie’, which would mobilise the reserve Army in the event of the Fuhrer’s death and prevent Goebbels from taking power. The only sticking point is the ambivalence of General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), whose signature is required to begin Valkyrie in the first place. Stauffenberg himself is tasked with disposing of Hitler and he travels to the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, with explosives to complete the task and inside man General Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) ready to pull the plug on all communications. Stauffenberg plants the explosives but flees without knowing for sure whether Hitler has survived, an uncertainty which causes delays and ultimately dooms the plot to failure.
If you’re determined not to go with it, there’s much about Valkyrie that you can pull up as incongruous. The film begins in German and continues just long enough for the audience to wonder if it’s going to continue that way, à la The Passion of the Christ. But no, the dialogue melts into Cruise’s American accent and the German characters begin to speak English in their own voices, and this does something strange to the film. Although we can see that Cruise, Nighy, Branagh, Wilkinson, Izzard etc. are dressed as Nazi – sorry, Wehrmacht* – troops, Valkyrie doesn’t feel like a tale of internal betrayal but a story of Allied Forces somehow infiltrating the higher ranks of the Third Reich.
This is not to criticise Cruise, who is as good here as anything I’ve seen him in, or the dependable Brits (I’m excluding Izzard from this definition, but he’s fine in a smallish role); the trouble is, because of the point we come into the story, the protagonists are never established as faithful Germans, so they can’t help but come over as British or American. The problem is compounded by David Bamber’s skulking Hitler, who has to speak English with a German accent. It’s as if someone in the production – Cruise, Singer, whoever – couldn’t countenance the ‘good’ characters even pretending to support Hitler, which results in a disappointingly simple and less credible – ie. typically Hollywoodised – narrative. In the same way, the scene where a Wagner record suggests the plot to Stauffenberg feels like exactly what it is, a movie device without any bearing on reality.
Fortunately, the film compensates for these deficiencies by delivering on dramatic thrills. If you have any grasp of recent European history, you will know before the film even starts that the plot doesn’t come off; however, unless you’re very well read-up on the subject, that’s about as much as you know, so there’s still plenty of tension left as to how the plan pans out and how close it comes to succeeding. Singer is more than capable of handling the action sequences, and there is plenty of drama as crucial decisions are made (or not made) in the absence of certainty about Hitler surviving the blast (or not).
The film also amplifies Stauffenberg’s concern for his country with a convincing concern for his dear wife Nina (Carice van Houten, the star of Black Book, who seems suited to World War II) and their children, making the viewer feel the tragedy of how it all turns out – late on, there’s a brief but fascinating glimpse of the lunatic Judge Freisler (Helmut Strauss) at the so-called “People’s Court”. Throughout, the competent staging of the action is matched by decent acting, from Cruise** and the British talent I’ve already mentioned; also from Tom Hollander, who with David Schofield makes up a mini-Pirates (II) reunion, and others: the cast does feature a number of German actors, though for the most part they regrettably play those in Hitler’s inner circle.
Whether or not his films have succeeded, Bryan Singer has always been a well-intentioned director; and Valkyrie is a well-intentioned film with an interesting history lesson to impart, an authentic look (locations include Berlin’s Bendlerblock, the building where Olbricht and Stauffenberg were stationed) and a more-than-decent quota of involving action. Unfortunately, the problem of casting well-known English-speaking actors is pretty much insurmountable; so while the film works as a wartime thriller, it doesn’t convince as a story of German resistance to Hitler’s evil.
NOTES: 1This is, no doubt, exactly the point the filmmakers would say they are trying to make: all Nazis were German, but not all the Germans fighting the war were Nazis. Valkyrie never quite reconciles this with the problem of casting Anglo-American actors, even if most of the baddies are also Anglophones.
2The film’s detractors all seem to centre on the opinion that Cruise is miscast and, moreover, ‘can’t act’. This is nonsense. He’s been less than sparkling in other movies and here, as already explained, his accent is an issue; but to say he cannot act is surely the viewer not being able to look past Cruise the headline-grabbing personality, rather than Tom’s perfectly decent performance.