Biblical Battle of Heaven and Hell

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Matthew 12:30

In Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, part suspense thriller about a failed assassination of Hitler, part docudrama and political protest film, it’s exciting and provocative all at once. It’s not quite like any Nazi film we’ve seen before. It’s not the fact that it turns out some of the Nazis weren’t so bad after all, and tried to fix things once things got to a really really bad low. It’s got the philosophical aspect that we might not conventionally expect because it raises the following crucial questions:

– What constitutes treason?
– What constitutes patriotism?
– Why is the fine line between them so complicated and difficult?

Valkyrie is a thriller based on a large-scale conspiracy within the German army to assassinate Hitler, and the film shows extreme care about minute details. The conspiracy leads to a failed bombing attempt on July 20, 1944. At the center of the plot was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) , exiled to the desert for making what must have been some seriously disrespectful remarks regarding Nazi policy. As the film opens, Stauffenberg is bargaining with a higher officer to try and get as many of his men back to Germany alive as possible. Unfortunately, an air raid cuts his regiment down and leaves him severely injured, losing his left eye and his right hand, as well as two fingers on his left hand. Already unhappy with Hitler’s policies and sensing a major Allied push toward Berlin, Stauffenberg is enlisted by Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) and General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) to join a group of German resistance planning to overthrow Hitler in the hopes of brokering a peace treaty with the Allied forces before Germany is destroyed.

Stauffenberg invents a complicated yet daringly ingenious plan that involves the assassination of Hitler (David Bamber) and the use of his personal guard to seize power in just such a case: Operation Valkyrie, as it was called, would ensure that no one would be able to overpower Hitler’s regime in the event of his death. Since members of the resistance were in positions of power over the guard, the death of Hitler would allow the resistance to seize control of Berlin and eventually all occupied territories while appointing an interim government to make peace with the Allied forces. The plot and characters in Valkyrie are based in fact, and while certain liberties have been taken with the facts, it’s a fascinating story that many people probably are not aware of.

Because we know Hitler survived, the suspense is centered in the minds of the participants, who call up the Reserve Army and actually arrest SS officials before discovering that their bomb did not kill its target. The real challenge for Singer is to drive the suspense throughout the film even when the audience knows the end result. Singer has made 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 film that’s elegant enough for its own good, emphasizing attention from the real essence of the story and its dramatic personage.

Singer succeeds not because he has his concentration wrapped around the material entirely, but because he pushes the story forward the way he should: as an action thriller with political undertones and the opposite. You might know how the story ends, but it’s still intriguing to watch it all unfold. Singer plays the whole story like a great suspense. It proves that, in the right hand, a suspense film can work still with no suspense. Screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander write the accounts with such precision, it’s easy to get back on track if you’ve lost your way for a few moments.

As events unfold and people begin to grasp what is happening—one faction is trying to overthrow Hitler’s Germany while the other is trying to preserve it—they were faced with a choice; which side would they be on? This would be a tumultuous choice to make because if you choose the wrong side, you are dead. Soldiers had to decide if they would honor their word and their oath, or decide to do what they were being told was necessary and good for Germany to survive. This was the moment for some tension and crackling drama to take place. When Operation Valkyrie unfolded, people were faced with a choice. They only had two options and there was no middle ground. We are faced with a similar choice, because whether we realize it or not, there is a coup taking place even as we speak. The forces of hell are rebelling against the authority of heaven, the cosmos is at war, and we are caught in the middle of it.

The Operation Valkyrie is, in many ways, similar to the Biblical battle of heaven and hell. In Germany in 1944 when that coup took place, people had to choose a side because it was an issue of survival. This entire heaven and hell thing is a religious battle that not everyone needs to be a part of. There is a significant moment in Valkyrie where a soldier confronts his superior officer and tells him that they must choose a side, that they can’t sit on the sidelines. However, he also warns that they need to make sure they choose the right side. The same goes with the rest of us. Sitting on the sideline of this battle between heaven and hell is not an option that we’re given. In fact, we’re involved whether we realize it or not. So even when we do nothing, even when we ignore what has been going on, we have already made our choice. We just have to be very careful in making that choice, and to certainly not let the choice be made for you by default through inaction. Just as in 1944, it is so important today for you to choose the right side, because the cost of being on the wrong side is far too much to bear. However, you have an advantage that the soldiers caught up in the middle of Operation Valkyrie didn’t have; you can know which side will win. Choose a side carefully. Make the choice yourself, and don’t let the choice be made for you by doing nothing.

This revivifying take on WWII intrigue is helped along by an excellent cast, paying sufficient attention to psychology, motivation, characterization, and broader political context. Almost anyone with an officer’s commission was ready to move against Hitler, wanted in on whatever plot to wipe him out was in the works. In fact, the film has so many characters that many of them don’t have much screen time, but each member of the cast makes their mark. For just one instance, this is the second film this year with Tom Wilkinson as a memorable backstabber. The whole production takes a right moderately stylized as neo-noir approach to a theme that is also treated with definite respect to facts, events, and especially characters as they form and change coalitions within the army.

As Stauffenberg’s collaborator, Branagh’s Henning von Tresckow, 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 always maintained that it didn’t matter if the conspirators failed–what mattered was that they try. Like Tresckow, Nighy’s General Friedrich Olbricht is 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 Operation Valkyrie to overthrow Hitler’s government.

Now, with Valkyrie, the second film under his United Artists umbrella, Cruise, a uniquely American star, with a prolific acting range, is attempting to reintroduce himself to an audience on a clean slate. While it still might be a hard sell to his most die hard haters, Cruise has made a fairly entertaining thriller worthy of look especially from history experts. This turning upside down of the convention of the bad guy with an eyepatch. He is a bad guy because he’s a Nazi, but he’s a good Nazi. He is convincing as the courageously heroic German officer and he speaks with a distinctly American accent, though early on, he utters a few sentences in German. Whether or not Cruise is using the correct accent, is beside the point of the film. Decisive, resolved, and resolute, he is a figure who commands respect and authority, and Cruise portrays that well enough so that when he starts barking orders at superior officers, you believe that they would snap into action and obey. He can still command a screen, as the moving force behind the attempted coup, which led to 700 arrests and 200 executions. He, along with actors Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy, do a fine job making us empathize for the good Nazis and have us still keep our distance. Singer also does a great job by never over-defame the soldiers in the Third Reich. Cruise is at his best during the moments where his character has to take command and make things happen. It’s the personal moments that also come across as sensible and completely emotional. These moments, though slow the story down at times, help us to understand this character and even to come to empathize him with so we can be emotionally engaged with what’s happening.

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, iIn many aspects, Valkyrie is a example to characteristic WWII thrillers— clean-cut, tightly edited, and often extremely tense. In the oeuvre of the promising director Singer, Valkyrie ranks among his above-mediocre works. It’s a well-executed take on a little-known tale of heroism from an era that seems like an indefatigable well of such stories. If you think you’re tired of WWII films, Valkyrie could very well change your mind.

Rating: 3.5/5
To see Valkyrie in theatres, check your local listings, or visit the http://valkyrie.unitedartists.com/

Criticetc is a journalism/film/book critic in Bangkok and Pattaya, and at http://www.pattayacitylive.com and http://www.cinemainreview.com

Be Sociable, Share!