December 18, 2008
The plot to kill Hitler becomes a Tom Cruise thriller
Directed by Bryan Singer and loaded with Tom Cruise's star power, as well as exploding ammunition, the film reconstructs the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt on the Fuhrer's life, which, had it succeeded, would have spared the lives of untold thousands of soldiers and death-camp inmates.
The carefully planned assassination and coup involved some 200 high-ranking German army officers and civilians and was energized by a dashing young aristocrat, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg.
He and a number of generals, descended mostly from the conservative landed gentry, concluded that only Hitler's elimination could save the honor of the German army and prevent the complete destruction of their country. They were also appalled by Nazi crimes against Jews and the people of the occupied countries, and blueprints for a post-Hitler Germany called for the closing of all concentration camps.
Despite the conspirators' meticulous planning, the assassination attempt miscarried because of a fluke. Von Stauffenberg carried a briefcase containing high-powered explosives into a staff meeting with Hitler at his East Prussian Wolf's Lair and exited shortly before the carefully timed explosion. At the last moment, however, an orderly casually pushed the briefcase away from where Hitler was standing and the Fuhrer survived the explosion -- shaken but alive and functioning.
So much is widely known, but what happened afterward gives the film its historical freshness, ratchets up the tension and allows the mixed American-British cast to display its emotional range.
The key player is Cruise as von Stauffenberg, and his fellow plotters among the German generals are portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson and Jamie Parker. There is little room for women -- and none for sex -- but Dutch actress Carice van Houten is allowed some chaste marital scenes as von Stauffenberg's loyal wife.
After barely exiting the war room, von Stauffenberg watches the powerful explosion rip the building apart and is convinced that Hitler has been killed. He puts into effect Operation Valkyrie, originally conceived by Hitler to keep his government and Nazi Party functioning in case he is incapacitated.
Turning the plan to their own ends, the conspirators are ready to install a civilian government, sideline the SS and start peace negotiations with the Allies.
However, valuable time is lost in hesitation and miscommunication, and when Hitler goes on the radio to announce that destiny had foiled his enemies, the plot falls apart and its planners are hunted down. All are killed, the lucky ones by firing squads, others by being hung from meat hooks by piano wires.
Singer, 43, has polished his bold visual style and preoccupation with man's capacity for evil in persecuting the outsider in such films as "Apt Pupil," "The Usual Suspects," "X-Men" and "Superman Returns."
Growing up as an only child in a Jewish family in Princeton Junction, N.J., Singer became fascinated with stories of the Holocaust and World War II from his high school studies and ranging even to watching television's "Hogan's Heroes."
"I grew up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood but didn't really experience any anti-Semitism," he said in a phone interview. "That made me wonder even more why Hitler hated the Jews so much."
A longtime history buff, Singer spent eight months in Berlin prior to shooting the film there, meeting with the families of von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators, as well as with Hitler's last bodyguard and secretaries who worked at the Berlin communications center during the attempted 1944 coup.
"It was an odd feeling being Jewish and walking along the streets where the Nazis had marched," Singer recalled. "But I think it's very important for us and for history to know that not all Germans were Nazis and that some paid with their lives for opposing Hitler.
"Valkyrie," similar to "Schindler's List," has led some critics to ask why some films on the Nazi era extol "good Germans," rather than "good Jews."
"Good question," Singer said. "When I figure it out, I'll let you know."
Except in a very tangential way, "Valkyrie" is not a Holocaust film, but there is a growing tendency to wedge all movies set in the Nazi era into the Holocaust genre. This, in turn, has given fodder to critics, who are becoming more numerous and acidic in their complaints about the alleged surfeit of Holocaust-themed movies and in their demands for a moratorium on making such pictures.
Singer weighed in on this controversy.
"There are never enough books or movies to help us understand, even remotely, man's inhumanity to man," he said. "Furthermore, studying this era brings you to other atrocities, from Stalin to Rwanda and Darfur."
"Valkyrie" opens at theaters Dec. 25. For additional background, visit www.foxinternational.com/valkyrie.