"Why didn't I know about that?" a man asked his buddy as they left a screening of Valkyrie, the World War II conspiracy drama starring Tom Cruise as Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the dashing aristocratic German army officer who came closest to killing Hitler.
Why, indeed? It's a great, even inspiring story that anyone interested in World War II history should know.
However, it's also a story that the Allied forces occupying Europe had as little interest in telling as the Nazis did. Granting Germans any amount of national pride was not exactly a priority at the end of a brutal, terrifyingly nasty war.
Nor would the widows and orphans of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge find comfort in knowing that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal henchmen vetoed Allied involvement with the plotters -- despite Winston Churchill's objections.
As a result, the myth crafted by Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels himself -- that the anti-Hitler conspirators were merely ambitious German officers who had attempted the coup only to accrue power for themselves -- lived on well after V-E Day. Allied spin later added the plotters acted only because they were disillusioned the war was not going well.
Valkeyrie dispatches that claim early on —at least for the historically literate -- with a suspenseful sequence set in March 1943, as General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) plants a bomb in Hitler's airplane. While this attempt was made in the wake of Hitler's defeat at Stalingrad, it was hardly obvious at that time that all was lost for the Third Reich.
The victorious Allies actively suppressed the true tale of the German resistance until Fabian von Schlabrendorff published his memoirs in the early 1960s. One of the few surviving insiders of what became known as the July 20 Plot, Schlabrendorff finally revealed the real story of the German resistance to Hitler to a wider audience, and history books began to reflect that story.
Unfortunately by then, William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich -- which was only a little less dismissive of the idealism of the plotters than Goebbels's radio broadcast -- was considered the definitive work on Hitler's Germany, and the template had been set for most school history texts.
The buzz about Valkyrie has been almost as unfair to the finished product as history has been to its protagonists -- mostly because the words "serious project" and "Tom Cruise" aren't expected to go together in the same sentence. I bet many critics had their snarky comments already written on the way to the screening.
But Valkyrie is a very good film, far more serious than it's being given it credit for. It's historically accurate, well acted and intelligent. Best of all, it's surprisingly entertaining. Director Bryan Singer (best known for the X-Men films and The Usual Suspects) wrings an awful lot of suspense out of a situation in which we know the ending — or at least the middle.
Singer does Hitchcockian work in captivating his audience as the pieces of the complicated plot come together, and the script from Christopher McQuarrie, Singer's Oscar-winning collaborator on Suspects, gives us just enough detail without bogging the story down. Singer makes it feel effortless, but it's a much harder task than it appears, as Valkyrie could have been a very talky and stiff drama.
Some critics have complained the conspirators' motivations are unclear, and Singer and McQuarrie focus too much on the mechanics of the plot. This is unfair. Stauffenberg lays out his own disgust at the Nazis in the opening scene, and key players make several mentions of Nazi atrocities. While Cruise's notorious devotion to Scientology made many Germans nervous about the project, Stauffenberg's devout Catholicism is obvious to the audience as the foundation for his idealism. Famed Lutheran theologian and pastor Detrich Bonhoffer, who was a part of the circle in real life, is not depicted, but several key characters make short Christian comments.
In fact, Stauffenberg, returning from Tunisia in 1943 to join Hitler's staff as a decorated and severely wounded hero, initially resists joining the conspiracy because he finds the group to be too much idealistic talk and too little action. Some critics complain that the film treats the reasons for killing Hitler as a given, rather than explain each character's personal transformation. However, that is in keeping with the character of the plotters themselves. Stauffenberg chides them for naïvely supposing that all they have to do is kill Hitler and a grateful army and populace with flock to their sides, as though everyone would understand why it had to be done.
Stauffenberg is not willing to risk having his wife and three children tortured to death by the Gestapo to merely replace Hitler with Himmler or an SS cabal. He proposes using Operation Valkyrie, Hitler's plan for preserving the Nazi government in case of his death or another emergency, against the Nazis themselves to put his people in charge.
The conspirators are led by retired General Ludwig Beck (a pitch-perfect Terrance Stamp), a man so revered by the German people and the army that he was able to get away with openly opposing Hitler for a decade. Their choice to replace Hitler was Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally), a left-of-center Social Democrat activist. Goerdeler's dithering at the messy business of assassination and his politician's overestimation of his popularity with Der Volk nearly derail the conspiracy.
Cruise is just fine as Stauffenberg, keeping his signature quirks and grin in check. He generates enough charisma to reflect why people were willing to follow Stauffenberg quite literally into Hell, without turning the film into Tom Cruise Takes on Hitler. Whatever problems people have with his performance, they brought with them into the theater. I suspect if mainstream media darling George Clooney had made the very same film, he would be no better in the role, but the tone of the critical commentary would be very different.
David Bamber is a very scary Hitler who resists the urge to chew the scenery. In a very tense scene when Stauffenberg needs Der Fuerher's signature on his changes to the Operation Valkyrie plan, Bamber/Hitler's muttered non sequiturs about Wagner's operas are far more chilling than the usual showy maniacal rants brought to the role.
The standout roles, however, belong to Bill Nighy as the mild-mannered and nervous General Friedrich Olbright, upon whose shoulders rests the launching of Operation Valkyrie, and the always great Tom Wilkinson as the conniving General Friedrich Fromm, whom Beck calls "a careerist pig."
Wilkinson deserves Oscar consideration as the man who knows of the conspiracy but waits to see what side is likely to win before taking action.
Like The Day of the Jackal, when an assassination plot against Charles de Gaulle goes awry, the audience already knows the plot will fail. What keeps the suspense at a high level in Valkyrie is that we care what happens to the assassins and dread their fates.
Lest you think this is a movie for buffs only, I was concerned that I would like it too much if it matched my point of view or be hypercritical if it did not meet my preconceptions. I'll just say that my wife, who did not spend the last 20 years reading everything she could about the resistance to Hitler thought it was the most suspenseful movie we've been to this year-- next to The Dark Knight, of course.
Cruise deserves a lot of credit for pushing Valkyrie in the face of public scorn at the very notion. Despite his recently publicized weirdness, he's had a very good year. His brilliantly hilarious turn as a chubby, balding and foul-mouthed studio exec in Ben Stiller's superb Tropic Thunder, a very non-PC send-up of Hollywood's approach to war, may get him major award consideration. With Valkyrie, he has done a good deed as well.
It appears that Valkyrie is at least doing enough business to alter public perception and put the heroism of General Beck's band of brothers into the public conversation.
It's about time.
Valkyrie does a great job for the part of the story it tells within the confines of a 2-hour theatrical movie. However, even an HBO miniseries would be inadequate to cover every aspect of this nearly decade-long conspiracy.
For readers who want to know more, the best account is still Schlabrendorff's The Secret War Against Hitler, which is engagingly written and as suspenseful as any good thriller. (In reality, it was Schlabrendorff, Von Tresckow's adjutant, and not the general himself who smuggled the bomb aboard Hitler's plane in 1943). Schlabrendorff includes a copy of a proposed German constitution, consciously patterned after the American document, and reveals plans to seek peace with the West but continue the war against Stalin.
In his magnificent Bodyguard of Lies, the definitive work on covert operations in World War II, Anthony Cave Brown also tells the story of the conspiracy. Brown draws heavily on Schlabrendorff but also extensively covers the tragically failed efforts of the resistance to garner support from the Allies. Both Brown and Schlabrendorff give Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the German intelligence chief huge credit for keeping the conspirators alive, something the film unfortunately does not have time to cover. Canaris and his chief deputy, Hans Oster (mentioned in the film as Stauffenberg's predecessor in the conspiracy), had been working to kill Hitler and leak his war plans to Britain's MI-6 since 1938. Brown's implications of wide cooperation between Canaris and "C" -- Sir Stuart Menzies, head of MI-6 -- are one of the war's fascinating and only partially told stories.
Thomas Fleming's great book The New Dealers' War exposes the utopian vision behind FDR's insistence on unconditional surrender, which effectively scuttled cooperation with the resistance.
Military historian Herbert Malloy Mason Jr.'s To Kill the Devil is a concise and readable treatment of the Beck/Canaris conspiracy, which also covers the various unconnected attempts on Hitler's life.