Thursday, February 19, 2009

Movie Review - Valkyrie


I was prepared not to like this movie.  Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg, one of Germany’s greatest heroes?  Nonetheless, I had to see it.  I’d read about the July Plot while researching my World War II romance novel and had been anxious to see the movie since I’d first heard of its filming.  Would Hollywood finally acknowledge that not all German soldiers of the Third Reich were spellbound by the Führer and mindlessly followed his every command?

Yes, I know, other films have portrayed a Wehrmacht officer with a heart and a mind of his own.  Sebastian Koch’s recent role in Black Book (2006) comes to mind, as well as Marlon Brando’s character in The Young Lions (1958).  But most of us grew up with the image of the merciless, black-booted, steel-helmeted killing machine as the personification of the German soldier.

This project was controversial from the start.  The producers wanted to film on location in Berlin, and fly Nazi flags over buildings still used by the German government.  Displays of the swastika are banned in today’s Germany, and though exceptions are made for historical and educational purposes, the sight is deeply disturbing to citizens of the Federal Republic.  The government was also less than pleased that Mr. Cruise, a Scientologist, would portray their national hero.  Germans are suspicious of radical ideologies (look how much trouble National Socialism got them into!) and most view Scientology as a harmful cult.

Cruise does a passable job of portraying the fearless, stoic protagonist, though a little more Cruise than Stauffenberg comes through at many points.  Cruise is handsome enough for the role; with wavy black hair and a steely gaze (from the one good eye – yes, even an eye patch can look sexy) he creates a reasonable facsimile of the noble German officer who dared defy the Nazis.  Yet I couldn’t help thinking that some unknown German actor could have saved the producers a heck of a lot of money (and saved me from having to watch Cruise for two hours while trying to suppress the memory of his tirade to Matt Lauer).  And they’d even have gotten a German accent in the bargain!  But then I’d forgotten that it’s the name above the title that sells the tickets.  Most Americans have never heard of Stauffenberg or the July Plot, and the story of a German who risked his life for his country’s salvation wouldn’t entice enough moviegoers.

So, in addition to banking on Cruise’s star power, they hawked Valkyrie as an action thriller, filled with speeding cars, machine-gun blasts and lots of explosions, just the sort of thing an American audience loves.  But it works.  The film is visually appealing: bright red Nazi flags wave crisply above a battalion of extras who snap to attention with the precision of a troop of real soldiers.  The soundtrack has a fitting ominous tone and the click of a thousand booted feet marching the streets of Berlin is effectively chilling.  The filmmakers create a great deal of tension and suspense, despite the fact that for anyone who hasn’t just awoken from a sixty-five year coma, the outcome of the plot is a foregone conclusion.  But I must credit the director for succeeding in suspending my disbelief, even if for just a moment.  When propaganda minister Goebbels slips a cyanide capsule into his mouth, fearing imminent arrest by the conspirators, I found myself whispering, “Eat it, you bastard”, though I certainly knew that his end would not come for many more months, when the Soviet Army came knocking on the Bunker door.  In the movie, a timely phone call from his Führer saves Goebbels from taking the fatal bite.  The movie is fast-paced and well executed, and I found myself literally on the edge of my seat, my heart racing, as I urged the resisters on. 

For anyone not familiar with this chapter of World War II history, I strongly recommend seeing Valkyrie.  It’s a fascinating and complex true story, and in the end, the filmmakers give the valiant Stauffenberg and his comrades their due.  Not by making the most masterful, intelligent film possible, but in bringing an entertaining movie to a wide audience, so that people outside Germany will know of the honor and sacrifice of the real-life heroes of July 1944.


Lise said...

This is a wonderful review, made moreso by your obvious depth of knowledge about the subject matter. It would always enhance the pleasure (or displeasure!) of watching an historical film to know a good deal about the time period or era or people involved. However, since film began (and used Italian extras as Indians), we have seen them take those artistic liberties! I look forward to more film reviews and book reviews as well as good conversation on the rich historical period that is the era of World War II.

Jeanette said...

As you were prepared to not like the movie, I looked at the review and really wasn't interested in the content. However, your educational comments along with your descriptions of the action of the movie, particularly how fast moving and entertaining it was, make me want to see it. Wes enjoys war movies. I often sit beside him surfing the internet, but not really watching the movie. This sounds like a movie we could both watch together. Thanks for sharing.

Lorraine Hoffman said...

Excellent review; it encourages me to see the movie. I look forward to reading more from this writer in the future.

Leanna Renee Hieber said...

Lis, I think you've given a really wonderful review here, I really appreciate it because I was debating about seeing the movie (Cruise runs hot and cold for me) but I'm very, very interested in the time period and subject matter. Great launch, Lis, it looks great!!

Kwana said...

Thanks for the review and welcome to the blog world. Well you're in now. Enjoy!

Karen said...

For a first time blogger you gave us a professional review that the New York Times would be proud of.

Your in depth review of the movie, shows your passion for historicals as well as your knowledge of the era.

Can't wait to read further reviews. Awesome job!

Carolyn said...

I thought this was a very good and useful review. It really makes me look forward to seeing the movie. I'm also a little put off when Hollywood doesn't cast characters as they truly are... so I'm interested in seeing Tom Cruise pull this off. Great job Lis, you're blog looks great!

Jen Childers said...

Great post!
My family is all from Germany and I know so little about the country and culture.
I just wish they would have gotten Til Schwieger to star in "valkyrie"
aside from being dead sexy, he's got the right voice!
ok swoon time is over.
we need to friend each other on face book

Lisbeth Eng said...

Hi again, Jen! I Googled Til Schwieger and you're right -- he is good looking!
I've been to Germany twice (for details about my most recent visit, read my post "Something there is that doesn't love a wall"). I have studied the German language (though am far from fluent) and am very interested in their culture.
I'll look for you on Facebook!