History at the Movies: Valkyrie

The film Valkyrie depicts the ill-fated attempt by the German Resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany’s leader (Fuehrer). Even while Valkyrie was being filmed, it was already beginning to generate some controversial press, for three reasons: 1) because Tom Cruise was caste as the lead character, German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, which is controversial because Tom Cruise is … well … Tom Cruise (i.e. not to be taken seriously as an actor these days); 2) because there was some question whether the German government would allow Cruise, a Scientologist, to film the movie in Germany, where many people think Scientology is not really a religion but a politically subversive movement which should be banned; and 3) because the German Resistance to Hitler evokes a wide range of emotions in Germany, ranging from pride in the “Good Germany” the resisters represent to discomfort because the resisters committed treason (even if it was in a noble cause) to shame, because the resisters did take action, unlike so many other Germans. (Photo (copyright MGM/UA but used for the purpose of critical review) via Wikipedia.com).

Now that the film is out, I would say that Valkyrie is a good, solid telling of the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt, with a fair bit of tension (which is not easy, given that we know the plot to kill Hitler failed) but limited action. It’s also a tough story to tell because there are so many characters and a complex set of circumstances to sort out. In order to cut through the detailed back story, the film-makers employ two effective techniques in the opening scenes: first, they begin with the staccato voices of German soldiers swearing their personal oath to serve Hitler (unto death!). This illustrates both the foreboding evil that the regime represents and the powerful bond of loyalty which made it hard for the German army to turn against Hitler. Then, in order to show that Stauffenberg was different, our first encounter of him is in North Africa, where we hear his thoughts as he writes in his diary, condemning the Hitler regime for its treatment of Jews in Eastern Europe and of Soviet prisoners of war, millions of whom perished while in German captivity.

Almost immediately thereafter, Stauffenberg suffers the extreme injuries that disfigure him (and ultimately undermine his ability to kill Hitler). Then, after scenes of him recovering in the hospital, we are launched into the clandestine world of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and topple the Nazi regime. After secret meetings and painstaking preparations, the film culminates in the July 20, 1944, explosion at the Hitler bunker in East Prussia and the attempt by the Resistance to capture control of Berlin, using the plans in the emergency operation called Valkyrie (thus the name of the film).

Valkyrie reveals the many obstacles to killing Hitler and the wide range of characters for and against the plot. One of the highlights for me was the way that the film explores the problem of historical contingency–how many little things happened one way and not another, leading to the eventual outcome (i.e. the failure of the conspiracy). Cruise is fine as the lead–he plays Stauffenberg like he should be played, with controlled intensity. For me, the actor disappeared well enough into the leading role, but it helps if you know what many of the real characters looked like (and Cruise does look a lot like Stauffenberg). Nor does it particularly matter that Cruise has no German accent–the Brits who play most of the other main roles don’t try to speak like Germans either. The film-makers attempt to overcome this language problem by presenting the opening minute or so of the film in German (with subtitles in English), then by fading into English during Cruise’s thought-monologue about German atrocities. I have no real complaints about any of the other characters either, except to note that it will be difficult for most people (who aren’t familiar with the structure and hierarchy of positions in the army and political agencies of Nazi Germany) to keep track of who’s who, and why their support for or opposition to the conspiracy matters.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in Germany, there’s been an interesting debate about Valkyrie, pitting those who nitpick about the historical details that the film distorts or changes (as all historical films do) and those (including Peter Hoffmann, my PhD supervisor from McGill University, who was the main historical advisor to the film-makers) who assert that the film accurately portrays the motivations, characters, and main events of the conspiracy. For me, it was fascinating to see the history of the German Resistance that I studied so much about come to life on the screen.

For more on the film, or to view a trailer, go to http://valkyrie.unitedartists.com. For more on the German Resistance, see the great website of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin or consult one of the works of Dr. Peter Hoffmann.

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