During the darkest days of World War Two, not all Germans were bad. As the Nazi jackboot marched across Europe, there were some who saw the madness that the Aryan state had become – and tried to stop it. One of those was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise). “The outrages committed by Hitler’s SS are a stain on the honour of the German Army,” he said. “I find myself surrounded by men unwilling to face the truth: Hitler is not only the archenemy of the entire world, but the archenemy of Germany.” Thus it was the most effective plot to kill Hitler was born. A proud military man of the old school, Stauffenberg was a loyal officer who loved his country but had been forced to watch with horror as the rise of Hitler led to the events of the war. Realizing time is running out, Stauffenberg decided to take action himself, and in 1942, on his own initiative, attempted to persuade senior commanders in the East to confront and overthrow Hitler. Then in 1943, while recovering from injuries suffered in combat, Stauffenberg joined forces with the German Resistance, a long-existing civilian anti-Hitler conspiracy comprised of men hidden inside the highest reaches of power. Armed with a cunning strategy to use Hitler’s own emergency plan to stabilize the government in the event of his demise – Operation Valkyrie – and turn that plan on its head to remove those in power and cripple Hitler’s regime, these men plot to assassinate the dictator and overthrow his Nazi government.
With everything in place, and with the future of the world, the fate of millions, and the lives of his wife and children hanging in the balance, Stauffenberg was thrust from being one of many who opposed Hitler to being the one who must kill Hitler himself. Director Bryan Singer re-teams with his Oscar winning The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie to bring to life the story of the men who led the operation to assassinate Hiltler. In addition to Cruise, the film’s cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, and Terence Stamp. In 2002, screenwriter McQuarrie was in Berlin doing research for another project when, during a tour of the city, he came across Stauffenbergstrasse, the street named after Claus von Stauffenberg. There he found the Bendlerblock, the site of a monument to the German Resistance that he found profoundly moving – a very complex, remarkable story that most people outside of Germany had never heard before. It was a story that revealed not all Germans supported Hitler, that there were all kinds of resistors, including those in the military, and some who were willing to stand up and say no. Continuing his research, McQuarrie was drawn in by Stauffenberg and his key role in planning the July 20, 1944, assassination plot against Hitler – including his ultimate decision to himself carry the bomb intended to change the world. The filmmakers did face a unique challenge in sustaining the story’s suspense for modern audiences – after all, Hitler’s ultimate fate is well known. They discovered, however, that the bombing was only half the story. The aftermath and the execution of Operation Valkyrie was filled with many surprises – from fatal hesitation to soaring bravery.
First off, you need to dismiss the fact that Cruise is so fresh-faced and downright American for this role. Also, that teeth-clenched intensity – his trademark in practically every film he’s in – is slightly misplaced as a Prussian aristocrat with a 1920s sensibility. That said, the Cruiser doesn’t do a bad job here – helped enormously by Singer’s snappy direction and McQuarrie’s good screenplay. More than the good actors – of which there are many in the film – and the sound production team, the real star of Valkyrie is history itself. This is one cracking tale that has never been outlined quite as well as it is here. Von Stauffenberg finds the German Resistance full of plans without any chance of success, so decides to bring a military cunning to the plot. Given that Hitler’s Valkyrie plan was a security fence to maintain the Nazi state should he be assassinated, the plotters decided that, having killed the Fuhrer, they would blame the SS and use the framework of Valkyrie to take over the country. A smart, daring plan full of potential problems – but stunning in its possibilities. But while von Stauffenberg drove the idea forward, he had to contend with the less than enthusiastic support of his motley crew of helpers – Tom Wilkinson as the duplicitous General Fromm, Bill Nighy as the uneasy General Olbricht, Kenneth Branagh as the righteous General Tresckow, plus Eddie Izzard and Terence Stamp as co-conspirators. Thomas Kretschmann plays Major Otto Remer, the officer sent to crush them. Valkyrie is an engaging film, neatly packed with suspense and action – made all the more enjoyable as a history lesson where, for once, Hollywood does not play too loose with the facts.
One jarring note is the accents. Cruise speaks in a normal American accent – as do the mainly English cast, with Kretschmann, who is German, speaking English with a German accent. While it is better than the mock German accents that ruined many a great film – “Halt! I zink I zaw zumzing!” from Von Ryan’s Express comes to mind – it might have been something the director could have addressed.