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.