Sometimes you just can’t seem to win. From the moment it was announced that an English language retelling of the incredible story around the 20 July plot in 1944 would be mounted, the cynics and the critics began to sharpen their blades, more so after the announcement that Hollywood star Tom Cruise would be playing the lead conspirator Claus von Stauffenberg, apparently based entirely on the two sharing uncannily similar profile shots. It didn’t seem to matter that the hugely successful director-writer team of The Usual Suspects would be bringing such a tale to screen, nor that Bryan Singer would be foregoing cinematic posturing or dodgy stabs at German accents in favor of dryly honest thriller sensibilities. Unfashionable though the opinion seems, amidst the lampooning and exploitative marketing lives and breathes a superbly choreographed and maturely handled slice of incredible history.
Disillusioned by the atrocities of the Fuhrer and the pall of dishonor now hanging heavy over their sacred Germany, a cabal of rebellious Wermacht officers begins efforts to assassinate their own leader Adolph Hitler and replace him with a conciliatory alternative that will end the Second World War and spare a legacy of unrighteous conquest. After numerous failed attempts from 1941 onwards, including a precariously staged and unsuccessful bombing of their leader’s transport plane, the conspirators find the perfect leader figure for their cause in the form of severely wounded nobleman Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a vehement opponent of Hitler taken off line duty in North Africa after losing an eye and a hand during an Allied bombing raid. With Stauffenberg as their figurehead, they plot a fresh attempt that will see Hitler and his staff wiped out by a bomb at his impregnable Wolf’s Layer headquarters and the Third Reich’s reserve army used in a coup d’etat to oust the SS and begin immediate peace talks to the end the war. What follows is an incredible and tragic series of events as the plotters so nearly succeed, but ultimately join the long list of hopelessly unlucky previous failures to cease the most destructive conflict the world has ever seen.
It’s a real testament to the directorial nous of Bryan Singer that for long stretches of Valkyrie, particularly when their plot comes to fruition and they begin to slowly take Berlin, that one quickly forgets we are dealing in a scenario that is irredeemably a foregone conclusion. Of course, all of us know (or should know) that the efforts of Stauffenberg and his crew are doomed to failure from the moment they are conceived, that the plot will not work and Hitler will live on for almost another full year while the treason of the protagonists will lead only to the sharp end of a firing squad. Yet the optimism as the plan plays out is not just palpable but almost overpowering. Despite the fatal mistakes and infuriating quirks of fate that threaten to derail the initial success, it really does seem as if things will work out. Inspiring scenes such as the mass of officers and clerks unveiling their literal cards of support, and beleaguered reserve army officer Major Otto Ernst Remer announcing the death of the Fuhrer to formations of Third Reich soldiers, subtly suggest at victory, playing at the wish fulfillment in the audience’s mind.
Sadly of course, this is not Inglourious Basterds and there is no break from reality to allow the good guys to win out. As news of his unjustly fortunate survival siphons back to Berlin, the coup is reeled in by Wermacht forces that quickly turn from unwitting pawns of rebellion to iron-fisted loyalist police. One is left to mourn the great attempt, which never lasted as anything other than a historical footnote decreeing the good deeds of the little heard of Secret Germany, a force that so nearly redeemed the world image of a people taken into the sway of escalating power frenzy. These men are not perfect, of course, and though they clearly fulfill the hero role of the story there’s a pragmatic honesty about Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s writing of the characters. This does not diminish the sadness of the final act, even if there is some satisfaction to be had in the prophetic final words of David Schofield’s condemned politician Erwin von Witzleben to a suitably indignant kangaroo court.
The care for historical detail shows a healthy respect for the facts of the incident, and Singer does not allow for any vilification or simplistic stereotyping in his work. The Nazis are not dismissively handled as mustache twirling villains, and the rarely seen Hitler (portrayed by David Bamber) is allowed to exist almost as an ethereal presence over the story when it would have been easy and forgivable to wheel him out as an over the top evil cardboard cut out. Instead the focus is purely on the circumstances in the same way it would be for any other similar story in a different setting; it’s an underdog tale for the most part, just one that follows the constraints of reality. This doesn’t diminish the tension and the taut suspense of their plans, mind you, and Singer displays the kind of taut direction which is wasted on superheroes and harks back to Apt Pupil and the definitive Suspects. The historical window dressing is great for setting, enhances the mood, but ultimately doesn’t act as hubris.
Despite ignorant claims that the almost entirely non-German cast (only two with substantial parts, Thomas Kretschmann and Christian Berkel, are of local stock) would be taking on English dialogue with fake accents, the actors are allowed to speak to their own rhythms and dialects in a well judged move to avoid camp caricature and distraction. A brief Hunt For Red October style transition from German into English at the beginning is an excellent stylistic choice aimed at addressing one of cinema’s oldest semantic gripes regarding language. It’s also worth noting that Cruise’s is the only American accent on display, and one quickly gets used to the fact as the meaty material takes centre stage; only a viewer with a premeditated agenda could find grounds for complaint not only with his voice, but with his superb performance. Understated and downplaying significantly his usual MO, Cruise is a picture of dignified honor and composure as Stauffenberg, a take which could easily (and perhaps did in the minds of those viewing the trailer) have fallen into the pitfalls of passionate hero protagonist. His playing of scenes such as being unable to reach his beloved wife (played by The Black Book’s Carice Van Houten) as the coup begins to fail, and the indignation at finding his fellow conspirators already making mistakes in the early stages of the plot, are exemplary.
The mostly British troupe that support him are on equally good form, with real kudos due to Bill Nighy as the unimposing and flaky General Albricht and comedian Eddie Izzard as reluctant insider Fellgiebel. The names on show are impressive, and include Kenneth Branagh, Terrence Stamp and a particularly slimy Tom Wilkinson as the frequently flipping Friedrich Fromm. Not faces likely to sell tickets without the presence of a celebrity culture behemoth such as Cruise, these recognizable old hands lend certain levity and creditability to what at times seems like a high concept play. The more famed members of Hitler’s elite are mercifully short on screen time, just like their leader, which helps avoid the mugging of modern historical retelling, though there is a crucial role for Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi big three of Himmler, Goring and Speer do feature fleetingly. The time is better served providing characterization for the lesser known and setting up for understated but hugely effective plot action.
Shaking off the adversity of German opposition to a scientologist portraying a national hero and the lazy assumptions of fickle pundits, Valkyrie is a film which on its own merits proves to be of the highest order both as an endlessly re-watchable and unbearably tense thriller and a fitting tribute to a group of men and women rarely referenced by history, whose noble and righteous stand is a wonderful testament to the good people, despite oppressive threats of retribution, making a superhuman and defiant effort to right the wrongs of a nation losing its collective sanity. Whether for right or wrong, much like the film’s own intentions, it proves to be a tragic and poignant essay and criminally underrated cinematic viewing.