A co-worker came in the Monday morning after Christmas. "I saw 'Valkyrie' over the weekend. It sucked." I love one-sentence summaries of people's opinions of films, so I prodded him a little further. "Well, you know what's going to happen, so the film doesn't have anywhere to go." I looked at him aghast. "They should have just made another documentary for the History Channel." So, I replied, "Of course we know that Hitler isn't killed, but is the film suspenseful?" "Don't get me wrong. There are some good actors there, but it didn't have anywhere to go. You know what is going to happen."
I have to respectfully disagree. While you may already know that Hitler isn't actually killed by Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), a very disgruntled German officer who dislikes the legacy Hitler will leave to Germany and wants to help stop him. What you don't know is what makes up the meat of "Valkyrie", the new film from director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects", "X-Men"). It's a very interesting story and the plot to kill the Fuhrer is very intricate. And it could've worked. "Valkyrie" was surprisingly good.
The film opens in Northern Africa. A general visits Stauffenberg's troops and he begs the General to move his men to another area, another less dangerous area, citing 'lack of water'. The general agrees to the white lie just as they are attacked. Stauffenberg watches the planes sweep in and tries to jet in a jeep before an explosion hits. Waking up at a hospital, he finds he has lost an eye and one hand. And many of his men have been injured because of bad planning. This only serves to make him more determined to try to change the course of the war. He can't simply stand by and watch as Hitler leads the army to its doom, and imposes his legacy on the history of the German people. Major-General Von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) narrowly covers up a botched assassination attempt on Hitler and he and his co-horts, who include General Beck (Terence Stamp) and the nervous General Olbrecht (Bill Nighy) begin to look for a new face for their movement, someone who can help galvanize the various people involved and give them the meaning and impetuous they need to take on such a dangerous assignment. They find their man in Stauffenberg. Stauffenberg realizes the mission is dangerous. In fact, they will all be murdered if even the hint of the plot is revealed, so they move cautiously and come up with a plan. They will use Hitler's own Project Valkyrie against him. Originally designed to prevent a coup, Valkyrie will aid them in taking over the government. The first step is to kill Hitler and Stauffenberg is reassigned, giving him better access to der Fuehrer. But Hitler seems to have nine lives and nothing in the plan goes as planned.
"Valkyrie" is a very suspenseful film because it quickly becomes apparent that the plan could work. So as we watch, we begin looking at and watching for two different things. How can the plan succeed? And what will cause the plan to fall apart and allow Hitler to live for almost another year, allowing him to take so many more lives, before he takes his own?
It is very interesting that the plot involves using one of Hitler's own safeguards against himself. Designed to implement a new governing body in the event the current leaders lead a coup against him, Hitler designed "Valkyrie" to protect him and his ideals. Stauffenberg realizes that they can use this to arrest and unarm the SS troops who are so loyal to Hitler, taking the government back, in the event of the leader's death. But the plan needs to be amended, and for that to happen, Hitler has to sign it himself. This is the first obstacle they must face.
Then, they have to kill Hitler. They know he will be soon meeting with his top officials at his retreat in the country. The meeting is planned for a bunker on the property, for their protection. The team realizes that this is the perfect opportunity. Stauffenberg volunteers to deliver the bomb.
Then, when they have successfully killed Hitler, they must invoke "Valkyrie", leading Major Remer (Thomas Kretschmann) and his Berlin police force begin arresting the SS, to ensure they are able to take over the government.
But to enact "Valkyrie", they must have the cooperation of General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the German militia. His signature is required to enact Project Valkyrie. And he isn't willing to help.
There are a lot of variables and problems. And it is interesting to watch all of the various elements fall into place. Except, of course, one variable they could not have predicted.
So, the plot is immensely watchable and suspenseful. A lot of the suspense is derived from the fact that the situations these men face are extremely dangerous. We all know the lengths Hitler would go to, to protect himself, his government and his ideals. If someone was even suspected of not following the party line, they were shot. Questions? No. Just the hint or mention of your criticism could get you killed. So, we realize how dangerous this mission is for these men.
And they realize it as well, which makes each of them even more determined to make it work. Cruise brings his trademark intensity to the role of Colonel Stauffenberg and it serves the character well. After we watch the opening scenes in the African desert, we understand why he is upset with how the war is going, with how Hitler's legacy will leave an indelible mark on German history. We understand why he would get involved in this crazy plot to kill Hitler. It makes sense.
That said Cruise is the least interesting actor in a pretty impressive roster of British actors playing the other people involved in the plot. Strangely, throughout the film, the British actors maintain their natural accents, and Cruise maintains his, yet they are all playing Germans. Because everyone is speaking with a different voice, it makes the entire film seem like a throwback to the films made in the late 60s and early 70s, the films boasting an "International Cast" of superstars. These films were generally bloated, over-produced projects trying to capitalize on the international market and stem the loss of paying customers who would buy movie tickets. They generally depicted famous battles and would have, for instance, Burt Lancaster playing an Italian, Sophia Loren playing a Spaniard and Maximillian Schell playing a Brit. This is only an example, but you get the idea. Basically, no one played their own nationality and everyone spoke in a varied form of English, giving the films a cobbled together, rough-hewn appearance and sound. They may have had international casts, but these films usually had plodding, overblown stories that failed to capture the attention. The only reason many of them are remembered today is because they starred Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren or Maximilian Schell.
But "Valkyrie" gets around this by making a very smart decision. Much of the film was actually shot in Germany, using existing government buildings as locations. This lends the film an appearance of authenticity that is hard to mistake. Singer uses the locations to impart a real sense of place for the events depicted within the film. As Stauffenberg heads to Fromm's office, he walks through an immense hallway, with high ceilings, depicting part of the image the Third Reich was trying to impart on others. We will be victorious and our government will be imposed upon the world, so we need large, grand buildings to illustrate this fact.
And the rest of the cast is very good. Terence Stamp's General Beck seems to be the leader of the group and interestingly, he is never in uniform. His authority is never questioned or his ability to defer to other people when they have a better plan of action. At one point, everyone else is determined to save him, risking their own lives for the sake of his. Bill Nighy plays the very nervous General Olbrecht. Charged with implementing a key part of the plan, he waffles and shouts and doesn't enact the provisions immediately. Tom Wilkinson plays General Fromm, the leader of the Berlin militia. The men approach him to become a part of their group, as he is necessary for the plan's success. We immediately get the sense that he is a big blowhard, hungry for power, yet more interested in staying alive. When he hears of their plan, he immediately turns off the monitoring device and erases the recorded conversation, trying to protect himself. If there is even the hint he is involved, he could be in danger. Kenneth Branagh has a small, but interesting role as Major General Von Tresckow. He initially tries to kill Hitler himself, but when he realizes the plan backfired, he works very hard to protect his position and identity, so he can help plot the next attempt. Eddie Izzard also has a small role as a communications officer who helps with the plan.
I also learned something else from the film. I really had no idea that so many people in the German military were upset with Hitler's actions, plans, ideology and thoughts. I knew there were a few attempts on Hitler's life, but I never imagined a single group of dozens of officers would band together and try to kill their leader. But while it is great that they eventually realized Hitler's actions and directions were reprehensible, why did it take so long?
"Valkyrie" is a very good, very entertaining, suspenseful look at a plot to kill Hitler that almost worked. It is amazing how close they almost came to pulling it off.