Valkyrie (2008)


Valkyrie has some integrity since Hollywood has stuck pretty much to the scenario of the failed July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler by military officers, officers notably of Prussian background. Tinseltown has not taken a lot of leeway, at least to my mind, bearing in mind I’m nothing but a casual historian of that plot. Von Stauffenberg and the others are portrayed as desperate plotters probably mainly concerned that Hitler was destroying their beloved traditional Germany–its centuries-old culture–especially the German military tradition, not to downplay their fears of a terrible, indefinite occupation by the inimical Allies unless post-Hitler some negotiation might be possible. Von Stauffenberg does speak of the SS’s genocide when he voices his epiphany, his Grand Complaint about the Nazis, but the script suggests the atrocities of the Third Reich are not the primary motivation of the would-be assassins.  Col. Von Stauffenberg, played acceptably by Tom Cruise, is dramatized as  coming to the decision that Hitler must be assassinated after Von Stauffenberg’s experience in the disastrous North African campaign in which he is disfigured during the last desperate days of the Panzers in those endless deserts and it had become clear that Hitler was intending that the German military be destroyed rather than massively retreat, let alone surrender.

The character of Wermacht General Olbricht, one of the cadre of would-be assassins, is a remarkable portrayal, dramatizing fear, bureaucratic indecision, uncertainty, and why things never quite go as planned or, put other ways, why there are the Fog of War and Unintended Consequences. Put more deeply, Olbricht underscores Tom Paine’s wisdom, “Tyranny, like Hell, is difficult to conquer.” That can be imagined variously, and Olbricht illustrates some of the ways. Paine’s wisdom should be the chief import of Valkyrie.

There is a scene at Hitler’s Bavarian retreat in a huge day room looking out at the mountains which is unforgettable, a small masterpiece of implicit storytelling. Hitler is seated at the far end of the room among Goebbles, Himmler, Goering, Bormann and one or two other inner circle players, and in just a few brilliantly staged moments of gestures, murmurs, facial expressions and dead-eyed as well as frighteningly bemused stares from these killers, the savage evil and, finally, ravaging insanity of them all, their forming a terrible shield against reality by their collective illusion, mutually reinforcing one another, are dramatized. Hitler gives the cultured Von Stauffenberg, allowed into the spectacular room to interrupt the Fuhrer for a crucial approval and signature on “Operation Valkyrie,” a needless explanation of the origin and character of the mythical Valkyries, a presumption by the would-be intellectual Hitler that seems most apt if nothing new to any of us with a passing knowledge of him.

The movie does, however, soft-pedal the terrible, barbaric consequences, the savage aftermath, of the plot’s failure. Some glimpses are shown of Friesler presiding over the trials of the conspirators in the courtroom and of the alleged piano wire strangulation of many of the plotters, but much is left out here (including the filming of the executions by Hitler’s and Goebbles’ order of those hanged from meat hooks), and I think it should have been accounted for, if only in words, not scenes, the words terrible enough in showing the savagery as explanatory paragraphs before “The End” followed by the dark scroll of the credits. I think this omission of Consequence does a disservice to the Paine wisdom. Without that wisdom coming across hard, there seems to me a question lingering: Why go this far in an artistic representation and then lessen the power of the lesson?

I overheard a young man in the lobby after the movie wondering to his friends, Why wasn’t there a popular uprising in Germany against the Hitler tyranny? And more specifically, Why was there so much hesitation at key moments in the failed July 1944 assassination plot?

You can’t imagine that they very often think about such problems–dramatic shortfalls, really–in those Final-Edit Conference Rooms on studio lots.