dir: Bryan Singer
A fair few nerds were angry and dispirited when youngish director Bryan Singer, famous for directing the criminal mindfuck that was The Usual Suspects, and powerful after directing the first two X-Men films, chose not to make the third X-Men flick, and instead wanted to make a pouty-faced serious flick about some Nazis who failed to kill Hitler. I certainly count myself amongst those pitchfork-toting nerds after watching that dire 3rd X-Men flick, which left me angry and unfulfilled, but it wasn’t because I felt Singer had some kind of personal obligation to entertain me.
It’s just that I hated that third movie so goddamn much. It seemed strange at the time that Singer, whose baby the X-Men movies were considered to be, would voluntarily choose to neglect his responsibilities and go off to make a flick with Tom Cruise playing a ‘good’ Nazi with an eyepatch. In fact, it seemed downright comical.
Having just watched Valkyrie, which I fully expected to be terrible, I can see why Singer was attracted to the story. Of course, the cynical side of me also sees that such material is prime Oscar-bait, which has an allure all its own, but considering the treatment of the material, it doesn’t feel manipulative or false. Singer had been trying to make this flick for most of the 2000s, and to me it looks like he got to make exactly the flick that he wanted to make. Each scene is meticulously put together, and it really is a remarkable piece of cinema independently of the acting or the story.
But even then, it’s a pretty important story. I was familiar with it prior to watching the flick, mostly because the name Von Stauffenberg has been known to me since I was a teenager as a name symbolising three distinct things a) conscientious objection to evil and a desire to do something extreme about it, b) utter failure and c) hanging by piano wire. Even the most clueless history-free moron must know that there can be no real spoilers discussing a flick like this since if it’s a flick about the conspiracy by high-ranking German officers to kill Hitler and thus spare the German people the Allied invasion, then clearly it’s not a revelation to indicate that they didn’t succeed.
Still, considering the way the flick is put together, knowing the history and knowing what’s going to happen in the flick are two completely different things. The first hour of the flick is tightly wound and structured as if the goal the officers are working towards is going to happen, as long as they have the balls to do it. In other words, they all act like they don’t know what’s going to happen, either way. A wise decision on the part of the filmmakers.
Even knowing the ending, I was completely drawn in. Singer structures it like a deadly serious heist picture, where intensive collaboration between conspirators, split-second timing, ice-cold determination and luck determine the outcome. I mean luck in the sense that the best planning in the universe can be undone by the random vagaries of chance.
In fact, the film does such a good job with this set-up that it makes the what if? / alternate history theorising that necessarily arises less an act of mental masturbation and more a genuine question, considering how close this plot got towards killing Hitler. Because, ultimately, this isn’t a flick about a group of guys who got together for drinks every Friday and drunkenly solved the world’s problems with yelled arguments about who would win in a fistfight: astronaut or caveman? This is about a bunch of guys who risked everything and nearly killed Hitler.
And then lost everything.
The tragedy of the tale is reflected in the movie, but, solely as an entertainment as opposed to a didactic history lesson, the movie doesn’t lose interest in telling its story in the most compelling (and thus fictionalised, but enjoyably so) manner possible. At no stage do we forget the ‘world’ our characters are living in, because every moment is soaked in dread and unholy tension. That life is grim even for the high ups in the Wehrmacht in Germany during the war is believable enough, but this film makes you feel that for these men and their families, once they started feeling less than ecstatic about their Fuhrer, every moment of every second of every day became almost unbearable until their deaths.
The other element to appreciate is the motivations of these men are not painted solely as the actions of men finally forced to act out of conscience. It would have been easy hackwork to mess with the chronology, the historical record and the dialogue to make it look like these guys are only acting to kill Hitler because they love the world, the Jews and puppies. The sad fact is that these men saw the writing on the wall and wanted to kill Hitler because, all the other reasons notwithstanding, the 1000-year Reich was losing the war. Some were pissed off about having been passed up for promotion, others had vainglorious ideas about unseating Hitler and his goons and continuing on as masters of the universe. Others just wanted some schnapps and a lie-down after a vigorous workout with Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS.
Of course von Stauffenberg is painted as being noble and heroic, seeing as history correctly regards him as a noble, and judges his actions to have been motivated by a complete lack of self-interest. Did he really plan on closing down the concentration camps, and on purging the Nazis out of the Fatherland?
Well, yeah. He did. The fact that Tom Cruise plays the character makes the reality of much of von Stauffenberg’s life seem like it can’t be true, but if anything, the film is scrupulously honest.
I won’t say accurate, because this is a film, after all, and Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise, after all. If anything, the truth of what happened, which Singer and his screenwriters are at pains to replicate, sounds way too heroic to be true. But it is, and despite the decent job Cruise does (it pains me to write that), his presence makes you disbelieve lines that are taken from the historical record. Yet it’s a matter of public record that von Stauffenberg loathed National Socialism, and wholeheartedly opposed the Final Solution and the treatment of the Jews. And that he hated frankfurters, schnitzel and dachshunds, but that’s an entirely different story.
If anything, von Stauffenberg was even more heroic and worthy of praise and respect than this film indicates. The film takes pains to imply that he was just one of many men whose efforts brought this plot to fruition (almost to mollify the Germans who objected to Cruise’s participation and blocked initial attempts to film in Germany), to make him look like more of a teamplayer so that it doesn’t look like a Cruise vehicle. The truth is that von Stauffenberg played an even bigger, more expansive role than Tom Cruise does in the service of this flick, but that’s okay.
Perhaps the film could have done more to illuminate von Stauffenberg’s history, philosophy and other aspects of his life, but really, for this flick that would have been unnecessary padding. The story itself, and just how fucking close they got, is amazing enough as it is. Even knowing what I did before watching the flick, seeing it all play out especially after the bombing attempt occurs (and the heart-breaking reasons why it didn’t hit its expected target) and the mobilisation of the Reserve army in Berlin, and the knowledge that the history of the Western World could have been significantly different if only…if only…if a table hadn’t been as thick, if the day hadn’t been as warm…if if if…
So close, so far away.
Out of a just-under two hour film, there is only one scene that rang false for me, and that is the scene where von Stauffenberg visits his family, the city is bombed by the British at night, and the children play Ride of the Valkyrie on the phonograph. Apart from the fact that it looked too cutesy to be true, the likelihood that he had records of Wagner’s music in his house when he hated Wagner just makes it ring false. I see why they needed to have a segue into the explanation of how/why the plan and thus the film were called Operation Valkyrie, but it was just too convenient in a flick that wasn’t generally so neat and tidy.
There are a whole bunch of intricate details that made the flick even more pleasurable for me (despite the hellishly serious subject matter), not least of which was the little touches regarding moments meant to point to a larger reality. The first sequence where it becomes apparent Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie were doing this was fairly early on, where a bunch of officers are waiting at a landing strip for the Fuhrer, and extinguish their cigarettes fearfully before the plane they await even starts making its approach. Long after the rest have stubbed them out with their oh so shiny boots, the last guy to put it out is clearly not as terrified of the Fuhrer, though he should be, considering the fact that he tries to kill him in short order.
One of my favourite scenes involved someone insisting that von Stauffenberg offer up the Seig Heil! in the Fuhrer’s honour, to which of course he complies, unsarcastically and with a full throated roar lifting the stump where his right hand used to be up in the air.
All the actors, including Cruise, deliver fine performances, with no-one really cutting loose and going absolutely berserk. Even the poor shmuck playing Hitler tones it down and gives a subdued (but for me still chilling) performance. That’s no to say every character is well-rounded or is a complete being in and of themselves. We get barely enough characterisation, but it’s enough. After all, the last time where a movie went to a lot of trouble to turn characters involved in a major event into well-rounded individuals, at the expense of the momentousness of events, I think it was called Pearl Harbor. And we all know how well that turned out.
The glass eye, the settings, the actual locations, the Wolf’s Lair, the intricacies of the plan, and the manner in which they are all represented and realised show a painstaking attention to detail and a strong desire on the part of the filmmakers to both garner Oscar nominations and to do justice to the history involved. Well, they might not have done too well with the Oscars (which is no great loss), but they did tremendously well in honouring the events as they transpired, with few attempts to make the story more generic, more Hollywood or more fake.
Sure it’s Hollywood, and sure it’s a World War II story, of which there’s no obvious shortage on the horizon, but, goddamn, is it a great story.
8 times I kept forgetting what I knew and hoped against hope that history somehow wasn’t history out of 10
“One cannot understand National Socialism if one does not understand Wagner.” – spoken by a decent painter, not-so-wonderful humanitarian, Valkyrie.