Well I am happy to say that Hollywood, for once, got it pretty right.
Valkyrie is a pretty faithful retelling of the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. While the story is known, and thus the outcome set, it is in the telling that we have our story – and here director Bryan Singer has crafted a subdued, but above average, thriller.
Tom Cruise plays Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who was instrumental in the attempt. Wounded in North Africa, he returns to Berlin to join the staff of the War Ministry. He already has somewhat of a reputation as disagreeing with High Command. It is here he is recruited by his superior, General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), into the
conspiracy. The film does well in showing the indecision, and fear and failed attempts of the group.
Cruise, who does bear a resemblance to the real Stauffenberg (and at one point in the film there is a shot that mirrors a photo of the real man), has wisely surrounded himself with a top-notch cast of mostly British names, such as Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terrance Stamp and Tom Wilkinson. There’s even a small – but vital – part for Eddie Izzard, almost unrecognisable in German military uniform and glasses.
Of course it wouldn’t be Hollywood unless they changed some things. The script, of course, understands that not everything these people said is recorded or remembered, but the words they place in mouths or the smaller actions they show are totally believable in the circumstances. One such event is the arrest of Dr. Joseph Goebbels. They show Goebbels spying the arriving military out his window and, forewarned, preparing a cyanide capsule in his mouth so that he should not be taken alive while at the same time connecting the important phone call that would change everything. This little touch is total fiction, of course, but could be true and makes the scene all that more interesting. To those who knows the story, other changes can be somewhat jarring; ideas, decisions or actions by Stauffenberg were actually done by other people, but these changes are minor and are done to show how the addition of the Colonel to the conspiracy was a major part in them galvanising into full action.
Some criticism has been levelled at the film, as often is with such movies, for “humanising” the Nazis. At one point, as Stauffenberg enters the room, we hear Hitler’s “inner circle” joking and chuckling over some shared remark, as Hitler’s hand gentle caresses his beloved German Shepherd’s head. Is this humanising? Perhaps. But the sad fact is that these people were human, which makes their crimes all the more horrible. The important point with Valkyrie however is that it is not the Nazi story, but the tale of one conspiracy’s attempt to end his rule. Everything, as it should be, is told from the point of view of the conspirators and, mainly, Stauffenberg.
We all know (or should) how the story ends, of course, and the film wraps up the eventual fates of each of the conspirators with both pictures and text. Like Titanic before it, there is an air of inevitability about it but unlike that film, we know that the central people involved are real, what happened is true, and their fates are what actually occurred – something to keep in mind as we watch some conspirators strung up on butcher’s hooks by piano wire…
Is the film worth it? Definitely. While it may not have the high octane thrills of a Hollywood blockbuster, it is obvious that everyone involved took the job quite seriously. Not all Germans were Nazis, as some would believe, and the film paints a solid picture of how some resisted – a story that deserves to be told, and remembered.
If you are ever in Berlin, it is worth your time to visit the German Resistance Memorial, which is contained in the actual building at which events took place. Not only do they give great detail about the July 20 plot, but the many other resistance movements and attempts of Hitler’s life that most people outside Germany do not know about. As I watched the film I saw all the buildings which I visited while in Berlin and recognised several streets. It made it all the more real for me.