Thursday, July 12, 2012

Movie – Valkyrie (2008)

Valkyrie details the actual events surrounding a plot by some officers in the German military to assassinate Hitler.  Unless you slept through every single history class, or believe Tarantino’s version of what happened to Hitler, you know that this plot did not succeed.  You may be wondering why you should watch a movie when you already know how it’s going to turn out.  If you are like me, you know the basics of what happened, but as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.  There is far more going on than just trying to bump off Hitler.  There has to be an entire plan in place to stage a coup afterwards to ensure that Himmler or Goebbels doesn’t just take power.  Where do you get the manpower to do that?  How do you control them?  Why did the plot fail?  What happens to the participants of the failed coup?  More important, what happens to their loved ones?

When Valkyrie was first trying to get locations to film in Germany, the government there was reluctant to let them.  The subject matter of the film was one that was sure to arouse strong feelings.  In addition, the filmmakers wanted to use the actual Bendler Block where the conspirators were headquartered.  Finally, actual swastikas were intended to be used in the film for the sake of realism, but Germany has a law against the display of the symbol.  After meeting with the filmmakers, and getting assurances that the subject matter would be treated with the utmost respect, Germany allowed the film to proceed.

Tom Cruise stars as Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a decorated German war hero who had lost an eye, a hand, and two fingers from his other hand, while serving in North Africa.  He expresses sentiments about Hitler in private that make their way to a set of conspirators that have already tried to kill Hitler once and failed.  These include Generals (Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy) and politicians (Terence Stamp, Kevin McNally).  von Stauffenberg attends his first meeting and immediately challenges the plotters.  All anyone talks about is ways to kill Hitler.  von Stauffenberg asks the question that none of them have – “then what happens?”

von Stauffenberg, having a strong mind for strategy, points out that killing Hitler doesn’t do them much good if they really want to effect change.  One of Hitler’s lieutenants would simply assume power and things would continue as they had.  In order to truly save Germany (the reason most of the conspirators are doing what they are doing), they have to actually take over control of the government.  von Stauffenberg has just the way to do it – Operation Valkyrie. 

This is the German government’s own plan to protect itself from a coup.  It is a reserve army ready to go on short notice to take and defend German centers of power.  By combining an assassination of Hitler, with “proof” that it is an SS plot to stage a coup, these conspirators can use the army designed to protect against coups, to actually stage a coup.  There’s one big problem, though: some changes to the current Valkyrie plan will need to be made and these require the personal signature of Adolph Hitler himself.

There is quite a bit of tension generated by the things that have to be put in place for the plan to succeed.  We know that it failed somewhere, but not necessarily where.  There are also aborted attempts for some parts of the plan.  Some of the politicians in the group don’t want the military to proceed in certain ways.  Even within the military there are some who don’t want to stick their necks out too far.  von Stauffenberg is also a realist.  He sends his wife and children away to try to keep them safe.  If he doesn’t succeed, though, they could be very vulnerable to retaliations from Hitler.  The end of the movie does have some text telling what happened to various key people in the film, including von Stauffenberg’s family.

One complaint I read about this film really made me laugh.  The person went on a rant about stupid Americans talking with stupid American accents instead of proper German accents and how it completely ruined the film for him.  This is funny on multiple levels.  First, other than Cruise just about everyone in the film was British or German, and everyone, with the exception of the actor playing Hitler, spoke in their normal accents.  Even funnier, these are characters who wouldn’t be speaking English to each other anyway.  They would be speaking German.  If you accept the huge leap that they are talking in English then what accents they are using is completely irrelevant.  Finally, the filmmakers actually did start the movie with the characters speaking German and then had a transition to English similar to what was done in The Hunt for Red October (1990).  All in all, this film does a better than average job at retaining the “German-ness” (i.e. all writing we see in reports, communiqués, notes, etc. is still in German).

I skipped this film when it came out because I felt I already knew enough of the history surrounding these events.  I watched it for the first time just a few days ago because I was doing this category.  I was pleasantly surprised that the film kept me interested in what was going to happen next, and actually worried about some of the characters in it.  Unless you've got something personal against Tom Cruise, I recommend that you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Great review! I really liked the movie, it wasn't exactly groundbreaking but it was entertaining and full of tension. The cast did pretty good job too.