The latest Tom Cruise vehicle, Valkyrie, tells the story of the last of numerous German plots to remove Adolf Hitler from power and save Germany from international shame and ignominious defeat. Cruise plays Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg, the central character in the assassination plot of July 20, 1944.
While virtually unknown in the U.S., Stauffenberg remains a celebrated figure in Germany, with numerous biographical treatments of the hero's life having appeared. Germans have been deeply skeptical about the Valkyrie project — nervous about Cruise's devotion to Scientology — and even resisted letting certain historical settings to be used during its filming. But Valkyrie is only incidentally harmed by Cruise's presence. It is an entertaining thriller, with gripping plot twists and many solid performances.
The problem is that the film falls between the sort of fast-paced action film that Cruise fans crave and the rich historical dramas concerning Hitler's reign, exemplified in two fine German language films, Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.
The film opens with a voiceover from Stauffenberg. In German with subtitles, the introductory voice-over is the film's superficial gesture in the direction of linguistic realism; during the rest of the film, actors speak in a distracting variety of English accents.
Serving in Tunisia in 1943, Stauffenberg becomes disillusioned with Hitler's policies and his unconscionable methods of conducting the war. Not long after this realization, he is badly injured — losing his right arm, the fingers from his left hand, and his left eye. Now wearing an eye patch, he is called back to Berlin, where he becomes enmeshed with a group of disgruntled military men with varying degrees of commitment to seeing Hitler eliminated.
The film does a good job of portraying the range of the conspirators' motives — from idealism to careerism. And it also hews closely to the historical facts, as shown by a comparison of the film with the account of the plot in the second volume of Ian Kershaw's massive and magisterial biography of Hitler. Superb cinematography, well-crafted production design (by Lilly Kilvert and Patrick Lumb), and effective use of historical sites also contribute to the film's authentic feel.
Valkyrie also gives a sense of the surprising number of individuals involved in a plot that escaped detection until after it had been fully unleashed. The main players include Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), who is first seen carrying a bomb onto the Fuehrer's plane; the retired General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), a longtime Hitler opponent; General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy); General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard), who is in charge of communications in Hitler's Wolf's Lair compound in East Prussia; and General Friedrich Fromm (in a fine performance by Tom Wilkinson). Snubbed by the Reich but still in charge of the reserve army, Fromm is a calculating careerist interested in playing both sides to his advantage.
The plot, which faces numerous obstacles, is to plant two bombs in Hitler's Lair; after having killed Hitler, the conspirators hope to invoke Valkyrie — a crisis plan developed by Hitler to neutralize the SS and put the reserve army in the service of the leaders of the new regime. In Norse legend (central to the mythology of Wagner's music), the valkyrie were the gods' handmaidens, given the task of choosing who will live and who will die in battle. In an irony upon which the film elects not to dwell, Hitler's Valkyrie plan provides the conspirators with an opportunity to use the tyrant's own insistence on bureaucratic obedience — and his paranoia — against him.
Referring to Valkyrie, Hitler (played by David Bamber) states at one point, "You cannot understand Nationalist Socialism unless you understand Wagner." The line, which intimates one of the deepest motives for Hitler's ambitions, comes off as a throwaway. That's too bad. Precisely because it is so foreign to contemporary American audiences, the way Hitler's self-understanding was formed by Wagner's mythic conception of the world merits greater development.
That omission points up the biggest weakness of the film. From the perspective of contemporary American audiences, jaded as they are by clichéd references to Hitler's evil and by spoofs of his appearance and personality, it just seems obvious that any sane person would want to kill Hitler. Moral outrage comes easily for viewers. The film focuses, as it certainly should, on the idealistic sentiments of the main conspirators. "We must act otherwise our country will always be Hitler's Germany," is the judgment of Stauffenberg and others. Yet the context of that judgment is hardly fleshed out.
On the practical side, there is little attention to the conspirators' long-term plan to establish an alliance with the U.S. and Britain against the Soviet Union. On the philosophical side, there is no attempt to account for the ways in which some individuals within the Nazi regime were able to resists the grip of its intoxicating nationalist vision. (That issue is treated much more adequately in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, where the resources of the Christian faith inspire both initial resistance to, and continued perseverance against, the Reich.)
In this context, Tom Cruise's mixed performance is especially problematic. Cruise Stauffenberg's is a sympathetic character, almost by default. As is nearly always the case in his films, his character is the story's moral compass. He even manages to make an eye patch look dashing, even as his disabilities add suspense and danger to the scene in which he struggles, under the duress of time, to prepare the bomb that he hopes will kill Hitler. The problem, as so often the case with Cruise, is that his own personality — a combination of the smirking frat boy and the morally upright rebel — seeps into the performance. He fails to embody the aristocratic bearing for which Stauffenberg was known. One half expects him to turn to Hitler and shout: "You can't handle the truth!"
One wonders how audiences will receive a film that is neither a fully realized historical drama, nor the latest sequel in the Mission Impossible franchise. Nonetheless, the film manages both to be an entertaining story and to avoid contravening the historical record in any serious way. For Hollywood, that combination is no mean achievement.