The good Germans?

January 30, 2009


Directed by Bryan Singer

Written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander

With Tom Cruise & Kenneth Branaugh

The new Tom Cruise movie, Valkyrie, attempts to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators.

On July 20, 1944, a group of German Army officers attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in his forest headquarters known as the Wolf's Lair. The plot failed. In the ensuing roundup of the conspirators, over 7,000 were arrested and 200 were executed. Valkyrie, Tom Cruise's new film, is the first major retelling of the story for an English-language audience.

The central figure in the conspiracy was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who delivered the bomb to Hitler's headquarters that wounded but failed to kill the dictator.

Stauffenberg was a highly decorated career military officer, as well as an aristocrat with the title of count. He was among the first to be executed.

Valkyrie begins in 1942 as the German Army is in desperate retreat from the Allied forces closing in on them in North Africa. Stauffenberg (Cruise) is an officer in the 10th Panzer Division. He badgers his senior officer to accept his plan for a quicker evacuation or face annihilation. But before he can implement it, he is strafed by a British fighter bomber and nearly killed in one of the more harrowing scenes in the film.

Stauffenberg is sent back to Germany to recover from his wounds, but is permanently disfigured, losing his left eye, his right hand and two fingers from his left hand.

He is promoted for his service and sent work in the Reich's War Ministry in Berlin. Stauffenberg is now a colonel and working in the administrative heart of the German war machine.

Once in Berlin, Stauffenberg, who has gained something of a reputation as a critic of the war, is approached by his own commanding officer, General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), who introduces him to a group of retired and active high-ranking military officers.

All agree the war is lost. Their goal is to kill Hitler and replace his regime with a provisional government that can negotiate an end to the war and save Germany from being occupied and dismembered.

Stauffenberg soon emerges as the most determined leader of the group and proposes using one of Hitler's own plans against him — Operation Valkyrie.

It was a military plan originally authorised by Hitler and designed to stabilise German cities — if Allied bombing produced a breakdown of law and order or the specter of revolt — with the reserve forces of the German Army taking control of the largest cities.

Stauffenberg proposed using a revised version of Valkyrie for the conspirators' own ends. His plan called for assassinating Hitler with a bomb, but publicly blaming it on Nazi radicals — claiming that they were the ones carrying out a coup — and then implementing Valkyrie.

He and his fellow conspirators, with the reserve army taking control of Berlin, would then declare a new government in power, and arrest and dispose of Hitler's most ardent supporters in the SS and the Gestapo.

The success of the plan was always a stretch and depended on major military figures declaring loyalty to the new regime. But it rested, first and foremost, on killing Hitler, which Stauffenberg thought he had accomplished. But when Hitler re-emerges wounded but very much alive, the conspiracy disintegrates.

Valkyrie is a competent retelling of the mechanics of the July 20 conspiracy, but there are big problems with it.

Cruise has made a point of promoting the movie as a "conspiracy thriller". The problem with this is that we already know the ending. As a result, there is not much of a thrill in this thriller.

Cruise's Stauffenberg is also pretty much a dour, one-note performance. You can't get past the fact that you are watching Tom Cruise with an eye patch. You don't get any feeling for who Stauffenberg was as a real person.

This leads to the other major problem with Valkyrie. What is the message of the film? Cruise and other characters repeatedly tell us that they want the world to know that "we are all not like him (Hitler)". The problem with focusing a film on the July 20 conspirators is that many of them were a lot like Hitler.

Take, for example, retired General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp). The conspirators wanted him to be the head of the new provisional government after Hitler's death.

In 1933, upon witnessing the Nazi seizure of power, Beck wrote, "I have wished for years for the political revolution, and now my wishes have come true. It is the first ray of hope since 1918."

Beck was chief of the general staff of the German Army in the 1930s and fell out with Hitler over his fast-track plans for German expansion. There's no great hero here, yet Beck is portrayed as a kindly father figure in the film.

This is also true of Stauffenberg's brothers, who are absent from the film, but were central to the July 20 plot. According to historian Peter Hoffmann in his book German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-45, "The Stauffenberg brothers initially accepted as sound much of the Nazi program; the leadership principle based on expertise and authority; a naturally ranked social order; Volskgemeinschaft, or national community ... concepts of race or a pure nationhood; and the determination to have a new German legal system."

You get not even a whiff of this about Stauffenberg in Cruise's film.

What motivated the conspirators? Defeat.

The most serious efforts by members of the German officer corps to dispose of Hitler occur following the catastrophic defeats of the German Army in North Africa and, especially, after the battle of Stalingrad in February 1943.

They didn't occur after Hitler's victories in the early years of the war (when they were quite willing to play ball with him), which set the stage for the Holocaust, the destruction of major European cities and the deaths of tens of millions, particularly on the Eastern Front.

That would require real heroes — not the ones in Valkyrie.

[Reprinted from]

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