Monday, July 13, 2009

Valkyrie (United Artists, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Valkyrie, the second release on the “new” United Artists label that was basically a vanity production company for Tom Cruise and a vehicle for the Sony conglomerate (which now owns what’s left of MGM, UA and Columbia) to lure him and his long-time producing partner Paula Wagner (who parted company with him after this movie was finished — she’s one of the laundry list of 17 producers on the credits) after Paramount fired them. It’s based on one of the most fascinating true stories of World War II: the 15th and last attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, most of them staged by a cadre within the German officer corps who thought Hitler was dragging down Germany.

Some of them were principled anti-fascists; some of them were descendants of the Junkers (the old Prussian aristocracy) who were appalled at the idea of being ruled and led into battle by an Austrian nobody (as I’ve joked elsewhere, from Marie Antoinette to the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to Adolf Hitler to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the record of Austrians who have got involved in other countries’ politics has not been good); and some of them had supported the start of World War II but were angered by Hitler’s fabled refusal to allow them to do tactical retreats (“Where the German soldier stands, there he stays!” Hitler would frequently thunder at his generals, thereby converting military defeats into total annihilations and hastening Germany’s overall loss of the war). William Shirer didn’t think much of the German officers who plotted against Hitler; in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich they essentially become the comic relief (one practically expects to hear the Laurel and Hardy theme song “Dance of the Cuckoos” every time they come on), and Shirer explains their repeated failure to off the Führer by sheer ineptitude conditioned by the fact that they were trained to lead armies in conventional battles, not to plot political assassinations and stage coups.

Valkyrie — the opening credits show the title in its German form, Walküre (making me wonder if anybody seeing this film had a momentary fear that they were going to be obliged to sit through a Wagner opera by mistake), and then the word is seen dissolving into English — begins in North Africa in 1942, where Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is severely wounded by a British fighter squadron that strafes his unit’s position. Stauffenberg loses his right hand completely and all but two fingers on his left. The film then depicts one of the earlier failures to kill Hitler by planting a bomb on his plane flying him from Ukraine back to Germany in 1943 — the fuse of the bomb froze at the high altitude the plane flew at and so it never went off — and shows some of the masterminds (if I can be polite) of the subsequent attempt: major-general Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), former German military commander Ludwig Beck (a grizzled, wizened and appropriately corpulent Terence Stamp), general Friedrich Ollbricht (Bill Nighy), general Ernest Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) and Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin R. McNally).

Goerdeler, whom the plotters apparently had in mind to replace Hitler as chancellor in the new government they planned to form after the assassination, was a fascinating character described by Douglas Sirk — who knew him because Goerdeler had been mayor of Leipzig when the Nazis took over and he allowed Sirk’s planned premiere of the Kurt Weill-Georg Kaiser musical Der Silbersee to go on despite Nazi opposition. In his book-length interview with Jon Halliday, Sirk recalled Goerdeler as “an old-fashioned conservative Democrat … an honest, highly educated German of the old school, a kind of Adenauer. He came from Königsberg, the city of Kant, and he was a Kantian himself, with the same unshakable ethical beliefs, the moral stubbornness, though his mind had not been sharpened by any experience of Marxism, whether accepted or rejected.”

However, the focus in Valkyrie is not on the civilians brought into the plot but on the military people who were the only ones with direct access to Hitler and therefore the people who actually had to kill him for the plot to succeed. The plotters were hoping that if they got rid of Hitler and the Nazi regime, they would be able to sue for peace and the Allies would give Germany a better deal than they would if the Nazis stayed in power and fought to the end — which, as Shirer and others who’ve written about the period have noted, was a forlorn hope: the Allied leaders, Churchill in particular, regarded the German military leadership and political class as hopelessly corrupted by the ideal of world conquest (remember that in World War I the Germans had also fought a war of aggression and justified it on the basis of nationalism and the alleged superiority of the German race; the only real difference between the Kaiser’s regime and Hitler’s in that regard was that the Kaiser’s government was not anti-Semitic, and indeed many Jews played key roles in Germany’s World War I effort) and were not going either to help a coup against Hitler succeed or offer a post-Hitler government better peace terms.

The title Valkyrie comes not only from the Nordic myths and Wagner’s Ring (in one scene in the film, Hitler plays a recording of the “Ride of the Valkyries” — with, praise be, an authentic German Grammophon label for the period; the label lists Hans Knappertsbusch as the conductor but the record is actually a modern one by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, recorded for Naxos but with the conductor unspecified; lists him as Uwe Mund — and says a line he apparently used in real life, “One cannot understand National Socialism if one does not understand Wagner”) but also from a plan Hitler had ordered to restore order in the Reich in general and Berlin in particular in case there was an attempt to overthrow or murder him. The officers in charge of the bomb plot get the idea to rework Valkyrie to serve the opposite of its initial purpose; fearful that the SS and the Gestapo will attempt to keep the Nazi regime in power, they work out a way to convince the Army Reserve that the SS and Gestapo are Hitler’s killers and are plotting a coup of their own that the reservists must mobilize to resist.

Valkyrie the movie is slow going at first — after the combat scene in which Stauffenberg is injured much of the first half-hour or so is just people sitting in rooms, talking to each other — but as the film goes on director Bryan Singer and writers Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander ratchet up the tension and emerge with a movie comparable to the 1973 The Day of the Jackal in its ability to build suspense even though the story is an historical event whose outcome is known by the audience in advance. Valkyrie got mixed-to-negative reviews and sank at the box office without a trace, but it’s quite a good movie even though some of the flaws the critics noticed are in evidence; Tom Cruise really is miscast as Stauffenberg (though it was what remained of his clout as a major box-office star that got the film made in the first place), and his American accent sticks out like a sore thumb in the nest of British actors who are his co-stars. (Once again, as in the 1940’s and since, Hollywood is using the British accent as an all-purpose indicator of “foreign-ness” — suggesting to American viewers that these people are from another country even though they’re speaking English, not German.)

The film took great pains to be historically accurate, even to shooting in the surviving buildings of the Third Reich (which meant some dodgy negotiations with the current German government — which is attempting to suppress the Church of Scientology and therefore was unwilling to facilitate the filming of one of their most treasured historical stories with one of the world’s most famous Scientologists in the lead), but both Charles and I got the impression that the McQuarrie-Alexander script was vastly exaggerating the ability of the coup plotters to gain a foothold on the ground in Berlin during those crucial hours of July 20, 1944 when it wasn’t at all clear whether Hitler was still alive. There are a few details the filmmakers inexplicably left out even though they greatly facilitate an understanding of the event — like why the 1943 bomb attempt failed (the fuse to the bomb froze at the high altitude at which Hitler’s plane was flying) or why the 1944 attack also failed (someone moved Stauffenberg’s briefcase, containing the bomb, under the heavy oaken conference table in Hitler’s room, and the oak absorbed most of the energy of the blast so Hitler was shaken but suffered only minor injuries) or how the coup plotters were dealt with after their attempt failed.

Hitler was anxious enough about maintaining the loyalty of the rest of the military that the officers were permitted either an execution by firing squad or the right to commit suicide (as Beck is shown doing in the film and as Erwin Rommel, whom Hitler was convinced had participated in the plot even though his later biographers disagree over whether and to what extent he was involved — and who isn’t depicted in Valkyrie at all! — was also allowed to do), but, on Hitler’s direct order, the civilians who took part in the plot were hanged with piano wire so they would die very slowly and painfully. Sirk’s account of Goerdeler’s death is a rare moment of emotional revulsion in what’s otherwise a typical long-format interview of a movie director: “They hung this Kantian man on a meat-hook, like an animal, letting him die this way. Later on, after hearing about this, it has followed me as a constant nightmare and has hardened me towards any kind of totalitarianism.” What’s more — something not depicted in the film, though it certainly could (and should!) have been, Hitler ordered the hangings filmed and ran the footage in private quite frequently in the remaining months of his life — and the trials of the plotters before the so-called “People’s Court” headed by judge Roland Friesler were also filmed by the crew of the German Weekly Newsreel for a feature-length film, Traitors Before the People’s Court.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels shelved the release of this movie when he realized that the coup plotters, who faced their inevitable convictions and executions with dignity and self-assurance, were coming off considerably better than the raving, screaming Friesler, who as Robert Edwin Herzstein writes in his book The War That Hitler Won (a reference to the fact that the Nazi regime held the support of the German people until the end and was not overthrown at the last minute the way the Kaiser had been days before the end of World War I), “dominates the movie by screaming obscenities and denunciations at the helpless prisoners, who somehow maintain their ‘Prussian’ dignity in the face of this madman. The existence of the film caused uneasiness in Army circles, especially among cadets, and the movie was never released for general viewing. The Reich Film Chamber supplied a print to Martin Bormann, who … ordered that Traitors not be sent out to individual Gauleiters [regional Nazi leaders] even as a party film, since … this could lead to ‘undesirable’ discussions about the manner in which the trial was carried out.” In any case, the trials ended abruptly when a British air raid on Berlin dropped a bomb on the courthouse and killed Friesler and just about everyone else in the room in the middle of a trial session.

A bit more on the aftermath in order to make the ending coherent to people not up on Nazi historical trivia would have helped make Valkyrie an even better film than it is, but as it stands it’s quite a bit better than the critical consensus would have it and a solid historical thriller even if Cruise’s presence does make it seem at times as if his Mission: Impossible character is going up against a really sinister and evil group of Nazi Germany re-enactors. The actor playing Adolf Hitler, David Bamber, manages to capture the haggard look the Führer had this late in the war, though the rather clipped comments he gives at the staff briefings cut against just about everything we know about life chez Hitler — mostly from the memoirs of Albert Speer, who said that being in Hitler’s presence was really boring since he insisted on talking for hours on end (and on having stenographers take down his words — these were later published as historical documents, called Tischgespräche — “table talks” — which are the real Hitler diaries and were used as the source material for the fake “Hitler diaries” from the early 1990’s) on a confusing mélange of subjects; he also insisted on playing records for his guests, and by the time Speer was part of Hitler’s inner circle he’d occasionally start out with a Wagner side or two for old time’s sake but would later switch to operetta in general and Franz Lehár in particular.

At least Bamber looks more like his real-life counterpart than Harvey Friedman, who plays Goebbels and looks and acts only superficially like the real one (but then Martin Kosleck played Goebbels twice and remains the definitive one; both in looks and in mannerisms he came closer to the extant footage of the real one than anyone else ever has). Valkyrie isn’t quite the movie its subject deserved, but on its own merits it’s quite good, though quite frankly Tom Cruise did a better job playing a military man who resists his government’s prosecution of an unjust war nearly two decades earlier in his turn as Viet Nam veteran turned war resister Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July.