Valkyrie

Part suspense thriller about a failed assassination of Hitler, part docudrama and political protest film, and mostly star vehicle to reenergize Tom Cruise's troubled career, but not satisfying on any of these levels, Bryan Singer's “Valkyrie,” a chronicle of Claus von Stauffenberg's daringly ingenious plot to eliminate Hitler in July 1944, is a glitzy but shallow picture that pays little attention to psychology, motivation, characterization, and broad political context.

In the oeuvre of the overestimated director Singer, “Valkyrie” ranks among his mediocre works, bearing some thematic resemblance to “Apt Pupil,” another disappointing character study about a tyrannical fascist professor (played by Ian McKellen) and his initialy adoring student (Brad Renfro).

Arguably miscast, Cruise is stiff and unconvincing as the courageously heroic German officer.  He speaks with a distinctly American accent, though early on, he utters a few sentences in German.  Making things worse is the fact that Cruise is surrounded by a distinguished supporting cast of English thespians (Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, Terence Stamp), who speak in English accent.  Then there are some officers who speak with a touch of German accent, and actors like the Dutch Carice van Houten (who plays Stauffenberg's wife) and German actor Thomas Kretschmann.

The whole production takes a wrong, overly stylized (neo-noir),  approach to a theme that should have been treated with more respect for facts, events, and especially characters as they form and change coalitions within the army.  However, this is a Hollywood star vehicle, designed for cruise (who’s also a producer) as a comeback of sorts, since his career as a major player seems to be over.  (Cruise's nomination this week for a Supporting Actor Golden Globe Award, by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, for his eccentric turn in the rude comedy “Tropic Thunder” might signal a transition to secondary roles).

Various problems have plagued the production from day one.  First, there was negative publicity of denying Cruise and his team the license to shoot on authentic locations, with various religious and secular groups dismissing his scientology as a cult rather than religion, while others fearing that a handsome Hollywood star might distort the honorable story.  Then there were shoots, reshoots, and more reshoots.  And finally, UA showed indecisiveness about when to release the film, originally slated for the spring of this year, then pushed back to next year, then moved to the end of this year.  “Valkyrie” finally opens on Christmas Day, but don't expect a strong performance at the box-office, or positive critical response, for that matter.

The tale, co-written by Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for scripting “The Usual Suspects”) and his partner Nathan Alexander, begins with an overtly blatant message that's meant to set the tone of the whole picture. It's delivered solemnly by Cruise as Colonel Stauffenberg as he records in his diary: “There is widespread disgust in the officer corps toward the crimes committed by the Nazis: the murder of civilians, the torture and starvation of prisoners, the mass execution of Jews. My duty as an officer is no longer to save my country, but to save human lives.  I cannot find one general in a position to confront Hitler with the courage to do it. I've found myself surrounded by men unwilling or unable to face the truth: Hitler is not only the archenemy of the entire world, but the arch enemy of Germany.  A change must be made.”

We get the idea: The Fuhrer’s promises upon election in the early 1930s of peace and economic prosperity have fallen by the wayside, leaving in their wake a path of destruction. The outrages committed by Hitler and the SS are perceived as a “stain” on the honor of the German Army and on the national pride of German society at large.

Initially a proud military man, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is a loyal officer who loves his country but has been forced to watch with horror how the rise of Hitler has led to World War II. While he continued his military service, he hopes that someone will find a way to stop Hitler before Europe and Germany are destroyed.

In the first, combat scene, set in Tunisia in 1943, Stauffenberg is badly injured during an air attack, losing his right arm, two fingers of his left hand, and his left eye.  Forced to wear a black eye-patch and a prosthetic arm, he is still amazingly adept at conducting all kinds of physical activities, some of which quite complicated, as it becomes clear when Stauffenberg himself plants the bomb in Hitler's sheltered headquarters .

Realizing that time is running out, Stauffenberg decides he must take action himself, and on his own initiative, attempts to persuade senior commanders in the East to confront and overthrow Hitler. While recovering from injuries suffered in combat, Stauffenberg joins forces with the German Resistance, a long-existing civilian anti-Hitler conspiracy comprised of men hidden inside the highest reaches of power.

The most striking thing about the plot (the fifteenth according to historians) to eliminate Hitler is how detailed and elaborate it was, and how many high-rank officers were involved and yet none was caught during the planning phase, which took many months.

Who were Stauffenberg's collaborators  Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), one of the most driven and unrelenting enemies of Hitler within the German armed forces, was a member of a noble Prussian family with a long military history, and considered a brilliant strategist with distinguished service. As early as 1938, Tresckow began seeking out other military insiders as well as civilians who opposed Hitler to start exploring means of overthrowing the government. He is best known for his attempt, seen in the movie, to smuggle captured British adhesive mines, disguised as two bottles of Cointreau onto Hitler's airplane. Before Stauffenberg became involved, Tresckow was the engine driving the resistance.  His ideals helped shape the plot, because he maintained that it didn't matter if the conspirators fail–what mattered was that they try.

Like Henning von Tresckow, General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) was a military hero who had been awarded the Iron Cross.  By 1940, he had joined the resistance and was secretly working to overthrow Hitler. It was Olbricht who was given the daunting responsibility of putting Operation Valkyrie into motion on July 20. In the film, Olbricht's moment of hesitation under fire becomes one of several twists of fate that threaten the plan to use Valkyrie to overthrow Hitler's government.

Armed with a cunning strategy to use Hitler's own emergency plan to stabilize the government in the event of his demise—titled Operation Valkyrie–and turn that plan on its head to remove those in power and cripple Hitler's regime, the rebels plot to assassinate the dictator and overthrow his Nazi government.

With everything in place, and with the future of the world, the fate of millions, and the lives of his wife and children hanging in the balance, Stauffenberg is thrust from being one of many who oppose Hitler to being the one who must kill Hitler himself.

Throughout the events of 1944, Stauffenberg's superior was Friedrich Fromm (splendidly played by Tom Wilkinson), the Commander in Chief of the Reserve Army.  The film suggests that Fromm knew about the assassination plan, but remained silent and did nothing to stop it.  Yet when the conspiracy failed, Frommwas the first to betray Stauffenberg and the others.

Since the outcome of the effort (failure and execution of all involved) is known, a movie like “Valkyrie” can only depict the process, the detailed preparations for the assassination, the recruitment of reliable participants, the arms used, the risks involved. Indeed, the film's most interesting section is the middle one, in which we see how Stauffenberg infiltrated Hitler's shelter.

You may recall that in 1973, Fred Zinnemann made “Day of the Jackal,” about the failed attempt to assassinate the then French President, Charles De Gaulle.  Facing similar problems, namely the fact that De Gaulle was not killed, Zinnemann decided to shoot his tale as a docudrama, a style that fitted the text, contributing to a rather suspenseful picture—despite the viewers' knowledge of the real historical facts.

Unfortunately, director Singer has taken the opposite approach, making a highly stylized and glossy feature that calls attention to its visuals and style and score, all at the expense of the story and its characters.  Here is a movie that's too elegant and over-produced for its own good, detracting attention from the real essence of the fascinating tale and its intriguing dramatic personage.

Singer began with the small, bad Sundance indie feature “Public Access,” before moving to the neo-noir crimer “The Usual Suspects” (still his most accomplished film) and the misguided “Apt Pupil,” and then onto bigger, impersonal, effects-driven movies like “X-Men” and “Superman Returns.”  At this juncture of his career, he seems to be be able to work in only one mode–superficial neo-noir–which is applied to all of his films, regardless of their particular narrative and historical settings.

The film was shot in Germany at various locations where many of the actual events occurred, including the historic Bendlerblock, the legendary Wolf's Lair, Hitler's Berghoff residence, and others. Recreating the atmosphere of paranoia inside the German Resistance is a team that includes Singer's frequent collaborators Newton Thomas Sigel as director of photography and editor-composer John Ottman (both of whom had worked on “Superman Returns,” “X2”), as well as production designers Lilly Kilvert (two-time Oscar-nominee for “The Last Samurai” and “Legends of the Fall”) and Patrick Lumb (“The Omen,” “Flight of the Phoenix”), and costume designer Joanna Johnston (“Munich,” “Saving Private Ryan”).

“Valkyrie” suffers from other problems, of historical rather than artistic nature.  The July 20, 1944 attempt to kill Hitler was one of the dozen (or so) efforts to assassination the dictator. No wonder Stauffenberg has become a national icon, cherished and celebrated by Germans. To the best of my knowledge, there have been at least three or four projects about “Valkyrie,” for the small or big screen.  In 1990, Brad Davis starred in the title role in a TV movie called “The Plot to Kill Hitler.”  And I am grateful to a former German student of mine, who alerted me to the superb German TV production, “Stauffenberg,” featuring the great actor Sebastian Koch as the doomed Colonel.

Which brings me back to Tom Cruise, a uniquely American star, with a limited acting range, that might not have been the best choice for the role.  Even by standards of his own career, his performance in “Valkyrie” would have to be considered feeble, and it may not be entirely his fault.  As scripted and directed, Cruise's Stauffenberg goes through the motions of a thick plot (in both senses of the term), but seldom conveys the particular kind of man he was, what were his motivations, what was his family life like, what plans did he hold were the assassination to succeed.

Cast
 
Col. Claus von Stauffenberg – Tom Cruise
Major-Gen. Henning von Tresckow – Kenneth Branagh
Gen. Friedrich Olbricht – Bill Nighy
Gen. Friedrich Fromm – Tom Wilkinson
Nina von Stauffenberg – Carice van Houten
Maj. Otto Ernst Remer – Thomas Kretschmann
Gen. Ludwig Beck – Terence Stamp
Gen. Erich Fellgiebel – Eddie Izzard
Dr. Carl Goerdeler – Kevin R. McNally
Col. Mertz von Quirnheim – Christian Berkel
Lt. Werner von Haeften – Jamie Parker
Adolf Hitler – David Bamber
Col. Heinz Brandt – Tom Hollander
Erwin von Witzleben – David Schofield
Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel – Kenneth Cranham
Margarethe von Oven – Halina Reijn
Maj. Ernst John von Freyend – Werner Daehn
Dr. Joseph Goebbels – Harvey Friedman
Lt. Herber – Matthias Schweighofer

Credits

(U.S.-Germany) An MGM release of an MGM and United Artists presentation of a Bad Hat Harry production, an Achte Babelsberg Film co-production.
Produced by Bryan Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Gilbert Adler.
Executive producers, Chris Lee, Ken Kamins, Daniel M. Snyder, Dwight C. Schar, Mark Shapiro, John Ottman.
Co-producers: Nathan Alexander, Henning Molfenter, Carl Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Jeffrey Wetzel.
Directed by Bryan Singer.
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander.
Camera (Technicolor), Newton Thomas Sigel.
Editing and Music: John Ottman. 
Production designers: Lilly Kilvert, Patrick Lumb; supervising art directors, John Warnke, Keith Pain, Ralf Schreck; art director, Cornelia Ott; set decorator, Bernard Henrich.
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston.
Sound: Chris Munro; supervising sound editors, Craig Henighan, Erik Aadahl; sound designer, Aadahl; re-recording mixers, Henighan, Skip Lievsay, Michael Herbick.
Visual effects supervisor, Richard R. Hoover; special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; visual effects, Savage Visual Effects, Frantic Films, Pacific Title & Art Studio; special effects supervisor, Allen Hall; stunt coordinators, Greg Powell, James Armstrong (U.S.).
Line producers: Chris Brock, Oliver Luer.
Assistant directors: Jeffrey Wetzel, Lee Cleary.
Second unit director: Eric Schwab; second unit camera, Ross Emery.
Casting: Roger Mussenden. 

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 121 Minutes.