Edmund Burke once said that he did “not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people,” but in the case of Germany, that claim has been sorely tested. Ever since the horrors of the death camps were exposed, the world has been asking how such barbarism could have taken place in a supposedly civilized country. The answer, more often than not, has been to point an accusing finger at the German people, and to mock the “Good Germans”those ordinary citizens who, though not murderers themselves, made Hitler’s crimes possible because of cowardice and passivity.
This tendency to ascribe mass accountability, however, has obscured an important fact: There really were good Germansincredibly brave men and women who risked their lives, and even gave them, to save their country from cataclysmic ruin. There were far too few, to be sure, but it’s these people who represented Germany at its best, and should not be forgotten.
Among the noblest was Claus, Count von Stauffenberg, a Colonel who led a daring conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, and came very close to succeeding. Stauffenberg came from an aristocratic Catholic family whose love of God, Germany, and European culture led him to break with the Third Reich, after initially serving it. In fact, Stauffenbergwho lost an eye, half an arm, and two fingers fighting in North Africawas actually slow to join the resisters. But when he did, he went further than any of them, placing himself, literally, on the frontlines. Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944the last of over a dozen such effortsis now the stuff of legend: Having achieved privileged access to Hitler, he was able to plant a bomb, inside a suitcase, next to the dictator during a military briefing at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair compound, shortly after noon that day. After the bomb exploded, Stauffenberg, certain that Hitler had been killed, raced back to Berlin to set in motion “Operation Valkyrie,” a plan utilizing the German Home Army to erect a new anti-Nazi government. Ironically, Valkyrie had originally been approved by Hitler himself, to restore order, in the event of an emergency; but Stauffenberg and his allies ingeniously devised a strategy to use the plan against the Fuhrer. But, as one of the conspirators presciently warns Stauffenberg in the film, “This is a military operationnothing ever goes according to plan.” The bomb did kill four, but not Hitler, and when he emerged a short time later, speaking defiantly on German radio, the would-be coup collapsed: Stauffenberg and his allies were rounded up and immediately executed; many of their relatives and friends would soon suffer the same fate. At the time of the operation, Stauffenberg knew there was only a small chance of success, but felt compelled to act nonetheless: “Even worse than failure is to yield to shame and coercion without a struggle.” Had he succeeded, millions of lives could have been saved in the remaining months of the War.
Stauffenberg has gotten surprisingly little attention in America, despite our nation’s fascination with heroes. Hollywood has practically ignored him: except for one now-forgotten cable movie, The Plot to Kill Hitler (1990), Stauffenberg hasn’t been the subject of any full-scale American production. His legacy has been largely confined to an occasional reference on the History Channel.
That all changed a few years ago when director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarriewho brought us the acclaimed film The Usual Suspects (1995)reunited to tell Stauffenberg’s story (adding Nathan Alexander as a writer). When word leaked out that Tom Cruise and his United Artists studio agreed to produce the movie, there was skepticism. The skepticism turned into mockery when Cruise cast himself in the lead role, and pictures emerged of him in full military regalia, with an eye-patch. Much of this hostility had to do with Cruise’s admittedly bizarre off-screen behavior (his promotion of Scientology; his infamous couch-jumping episode on Oprah), though there was a lot of piling on, too. Hollywood loves to build up and tear down its icons, and Cruise is just the latest celebrity to lose his golden aura.
This is unfortunate because Cruise, in the right role, can be a very effective actor. In the Oscar winning Rain Man, for example, Dustin Hoffman, received all the attention (and most of the awards), playing an autistic savant; but it is Cruise, as Hoffmann’s narcissistic brotherwho only gradually comes to see the selfishness of his ways and redeems himselfwho carries that film.
None of which is to say that Cruise was the best choice for Count von Stauffenberg. Although he does resemble him physically, there is just too much about Cruise that screams “lightweight!” and reminds one of the brash youths in Risky Business or Cocktail. The kind of Old World nobility which Stauffenberg embodied just seems beyond his reach. An actor with more gravitasViggo Mortensen, perhaps, or maybe Ralph Fienneswould have been more convincing as the doomed Colonel. And yet, all that being said, Cruise delivers a better-than-expected performance that grips the viewer from beginning to endwhich is the best that a moviegoer can expect.
Valkyrie opens with a voiceover from Cruise, in German, describing the horrors of the Third Reich, before segueing into English. Its 1943, and Stauffenberg (Cruise) is in Tunisia, where he suffers his traumatic injuries from an Allied air attack. After he returns home to recuperate, he meets up with other disillusioned officers, and begins measuring the level of their opposition (some had already plotted or tried to kill Hitler, unsuccessfully). Stauffenberg eventually joins an elite underground group, and becomes the catalyst to propel a new plot forward. The emerging conspiracy comes close to being discovered several times, but breathlessly advances, along a knife’s edge, with everything at stake.
The challenge for Singer in this film was to sustain suspense, even with our knowledge of the conspiracy’s failure. That he does soand with aplombis a credit to his talent, recalling Fred Zinnemann’s achievement in The Day of the Jackal. In that film, based on a failed plot against Charles de Gaulle, the moviegoer knew going in that the assassin missed, but Zinnemann, through a minimalist, docudrama style, was able to rivet his audience until the very last frame. Singer uses the very fact that we know the ultimate fate of the plot to give Valkyrie a sense of tragic foreboding, and makes us empathize with the resisters all the more.
Artistically, the film is striking. The McQuarrie-Alexander script is crisp and intelligent; the production design, outstanding; and the music, engaging. Filmed on location at many historic sites in Germany, Valkyrie strives for authenticity; but critics have challenged its approach. Much has been said about the lack of German accents from the English-speaking cast; but it was wise for Singer to allow the cast to speak in their natural voices, thus avoiding the risks of shaky German accents, and allowing viewers to just be carried along by the story.
Valkyrie is immeasurably helped by a cast of top-notch (mostly British) actors who shine in supporting roles: Kenneth Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, an early leader of the Resistance; Terence Stamp, as the equally honorable General Ludwig Beck; Tom Wilkinson as the opportunistic and conniving General Friedrich Fromm; and especially Bill Nighy, whose turn as the daring but nerve-racked General Friedrich Olbricht deserves an award. David Bamber as Hitler is appropriately frightening and unhinged (if a little subdued); and Carice van Houten as Stauffenberg’s wife, Nina, is heartbreaking, in a small but wonderful performance. Against this foray of talent, Cruise avoids the temptation to overact, or try to go beyond himself, and modulates his performance, delivering a stoic but intense Stauffenberg. The film grows stronger as it goes along, and the improbable Cruise eventually blends in and manages to hold his own amongst his impressive peers. The climax and ending of the film are powerful, and viewers may find themselves unexpectedly moved.
Valkyrie is not without flaws, however. Unless one is familiar with this complex history, its easy to get lost among the historical figures, and the reasons for their revolt (a good overview is provided by Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler). Historians still debate their motivationsdid the conspirators betray Hitler because they feared he would lose the War, or did they act out of genuine moral passion and conscience?but the movie, concentrating on the suspense and action sequences, really doesn’t explore them. Had it done so, they could have utilized the latest research showing that outrage against the Holocaust was a key factor in moving them. Because Valkyrie doesn’t delve into the psychology, or moral development, of its lead characters, it misses a chance to really understand them. (For that, one should turn to The Restless Conscience, Hava Beller’s searing documentary, which interweaves archival footage and interviews with the resisters, revealing their personal struggles). Void of these elements, Valkyrie lacks the depth and realism of anti-Nazi movies that do highlight character development: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, and Schindler’s List.
Ultimately, therefore, this film lacks greatness. But to say that Valkyrie is not a great film is not to say it isn’t worthwhile. On its own terms, its an engrossing thrillerfar better than the usual Hollywood fare. Moreover, apart from its artistic and entertainment value, the film has educational and moral elements, andgratefullyavoids political correctness. Certain academics have an “unappealing habit” of dismissing the 20 July plotters as reactionaries, “while earnestly extolling the self-sacrifices of the underprivileged Communists,” to quote historian Michael Burleigh. But there are no heroic Communists in Valkyrie, and shouldn’t be: most Communists opposed to Hitler, after all, were Stalinists, who simply wanted to replace one murderous dictatorship with another. The honorable Resistance, in contrastranging from social democrats to conservative aristocratswere fighting to rescue and preserve Western civilization.
Finallyand this is a pleasant surpriseone senses something Christian about this film. The messages are subtle, but they are there: a cross around Stauffenberg’s neck; a scene in a Church, with a statue of Christ looking on; references to Scripture and the Almighty (“Only God can judge us now”); and an image of Nina von Stauffenberg clutching her abdomen as she realizes she might be seeing her husband for the last time: She was pregnant with the couple’s fifth child.
Peter Hoffmann, the leading authority on the German Resistance, and Stauffenberg’s biographer, has praised the new film for its historical accuracy (ranking it higher than an acclaimed 2004 German production); and at least one member of the family, who had initially expressed apprehension about the project, has praised it as well: Stauffenberg’s daughter, Konstanze von Schulthess-Rechbergthe same child who was in her mother’s womb at the time of Operation Valkyriewas at the New York premiere, and announced the film “a success.”
If so, Cruise deserves much of the credit, for without his interest and backing, Valkyrie may never have been made, let alone received international exposure. In a recent interview the star admitted that he had “no idea,” until recently, about the German Resistance, and regretted that most people in the world have never even heard of Stauffenberg. Thankfully, as a result of this film, that will no longer be true. The Good Germans, at last, have finally gotten their due.
William Doino Jr. writes for Inside the Vatican.
The Plot to Kill Hitler (1990)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Rain Man (1988)
Risky Business (1983)
The Day of the Jackal (1973)
Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler (2008)
The Restless Conscience (1992)
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)
Schindler’s List (1993)
Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944, by Peter Hoffmann (Cambridge University Press, 1995)