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Valkyrie
cast: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, and Tom Wilkinson

director: Bryan Singer

124 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail
[released 8 June]

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Ian Sales
Apparently there is a perception that all those who fought for Germany in World War II were evil Nazis. In fact, this is not only untrue, but the good non-Nazi German soldier has become a cliché. Perhaps Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, the writers of Valkyrie, have never read any Sven Hassel or Leo Kessler. Perhaps the US has become a victim of its own propaganda - it so successfully demonised the Germans during WWII that, even 65 years later, all are characterised as monstrous. After all, the US immigration form asks if a visitor has been a member of the Nazi party, but not the Ba'athist party or the Taliban.

Ironically, those selfsame propaganda techniques were used to rehabilitate the Nazi rocket scientists gathered up by the US in Operation Paperclip. Wernher von Braun will go down in the history books as a man who was more concerned with rocketry than realpolitik. And yet his V-1s and V-2s were built by slave labour, he was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party, and he was at very least complicit in the war crimes of his peers. But the US needed him... so he got his own Disney television programme.

Valkyrie, according to McQuarrie, came about when he visited Berlin and saw a plaque in the Bendlerblock dedicated to General der Infanterie Friedrich Olbricht, Oberst Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, Oberst Albricht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim and Oberleutnant Werner von Haeften. He could not understand why four Nazi officers had been memorialised. So he researched the names... and learnt of the 20th July plot.

On 20th July 1944, von Stauffenberg carried a hidden bomb into a conference hut at the Wolfsschanze, the Wolf's Lair, one of Hitler's many secret headquarters. Stauffenberg intended to assassinate Hitler during one of the command briefings. The bomb exploded, but Hitler survived with minor cuts and bruises. And there is one of the problems with Bryan Singer's film. While clearly not everyone knows of the 20th July plot, they must surely know that Hitler survived until 1945, and that he committed suicide in the F´┐Żhrerbunker, as allied troops took Berlin. Stauffenberg's plot failed. So how does the director make it dramatic? How to make it suspenseful?

Rely on the ignorance of the audience? Perhaps that works in some parts of the world, but it seems a strategy destined for failure. Happily, it's not the one Singer adopted. He has instead chosen to go for verisimilitude. So much so, in fact, that most of the cast were chosen because of their resemblance to the historical people they played - including Tom Cruise, who does look somewhat like von Stauffenberg. Similar care was taken over the costumes and places used in the film. Not every building from Hitler's Berlin still survives, but wherever possible the filmmakers used Nazi ones. (The Bendlerblock, incidentally, was built between 1911 and 1914.)

All this makes Valkyrie a film is it is easier to admire than to enjoy. There's all those British thespians, for one thing, not to mention half a dozen European actors of repute. And the special effects used to show in close-up von Stauffenberg's injuries, his missing eye and hand, are especially effective.

And yet all that means little because the film suffers from a lack of drama. Hitler was not killed by von Stauffenberg's bomb, the conspirators were subsequently assassinated, and Germany lost the war. There is no suspense. The fate of the cast is predetermined; they're going through the motions. So it seems a little churlish to complain that they don't quite convince as the parts they are playing. Cruise is too much the American everyman to convince as an aristocratic Junkers war hero. And those English thesps play their generals and lieutenants like nervous bureaucrats rather than steely-eyed Wehrmacht officers.

Nowhere is this impedance mismatch between the expectation of the character from history and the character as portrayed on-screen so great as in the roles of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and Himmler. The Führer as you would imagine him today might perhaps owe more to myth than reality, but most cinematic portrayals - Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang, Robert Carlyle in Hitler: The Rise Of Evil - have shown him as charismatic and quite a little bit scary. In Valkyrie, Hitler almost seems to fade into the scenery. And the same is true of Himmler and Goering. Goebbels has a scene of his own, but even in that his motivation appears closer to fear than the expected arrogance.

It seems strange to complain that Valkyrie seems to have reduced World War II to a global war fought between heroic everymen and sweating bureaucrats. Perhaps too much myth has accreted about the Nazi high command and the Third Reich. Perhaps the only way we can understand why it all happened is to treat it as myth. Which makes any attempt at showing the reality of it seem somewhat flat by comparison. Certainly the conspirators of the 20th July plot should be remembered - and the details of the plot better known - but the end result of a movie on the topic was, I suspect, always going to be something of a curate's egg. Singer appears to have avoided most of the traps, only to have fallen foul of making it too real and deflating the myth.

Valkyrie is worth seeing, if only for its subject matter. Neither Singer's nor Cruise's careers are going to be damaged by this film, but neither are they going to shine all the more brightly. The film was initially denied use of historical sites in Germany by the German government - because of the perception the film would soil the memories of the 20th July conspirators, but also due to Cruise's links to Scientology. Later, the Germans allowed filming to take place. No one involved has any real reason to be embarrassed; if anything, perhaps the controversy worked to the film's advantage. Because there is little that is actually controversial in it. Valkyrie is... well-meaning.

The DVD also includes a featurette on the making of Valkyrie, and another on the history of the 20th July plot.
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