Filmmaker and World War II buff Bryan Singer read of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and the first thought to cross his mind was “thriller.”
The director of “The Usual Suspects” saw “all these thriller elements,” says Singer, who made “Valkyrie” about that assassination attempt. “You’ve got the war coming to an end, lending urgency to the plot. You’ve got bombs with very old-fashioned fuses that might or might not work.
“Many people think they know the story, but most don’t know specifics - the coup, who lived, who died.”
Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie set out to correct that. “Valkyrie,” which opens Christmas Day, is about the last and best known of the many attempts to kill Hitler. The “July 20 Plot” involved German Army officers, men who had pledged an oath to Hitler but who, after years of atrocities and an ill-fated war, were finally willing to blow up Hitler and stage a coup.
The story had a leading man, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. Singer cast Tom Cruise in that role. It had moments of great heroism and disheartening cowardice, determination, pathos and that historical hook.
“People with no knowledge of who Adolf was can go to this movie and be thrilled by the audacity of the plotters, and get some background of this amazing time in history,” says Terence Stamp, the British actor who plays retired Gen. Ludwig Beck, who was to head the new post-Nazi government had the plot succeeded. “There is no message here, other than that there are honorable people everywhere, even in the most dishonorable situations.”
Singer hastens to say that the film “doesn’t exonerate Germany, forgive the atrocities. It just demonstrates that there are always dissenters. The country may turn one way, but you can morally choose to go another.”
That hasn’t left Valkyrie free from criticism. Jewish issues essayist Stuart Klawans complained that by focusing on the conspiracy, “the exciting foreground of the movie can be filled with German staff officers, while the victims of genocide linger in the rear as a kind of atmospheric effect. This is convenient for the director ... whose 1998 ‘Apt Pupil’ delved into the awful fascination that Nazism exerts on young minds, the better to fascinate an audience with the exact same thrills.”
Singer dismisses Klawans by saying no one has forgotten the Holocaust. “Those events are in the background. This was not meant to be a moral pic or a bio-pic. These men despise Hitler for their own reasons, most of them because he was murdering millions of people. They knew it from early on. In fact, Gen. Beck resigned back in 1938 in protest of the ways the winds were blowing, in terms of war.”
Beck is presented “as the moral center of this plot,” Stamp says, noting the on-set expert who kept him from straying far from the historic Beck. Beck did not resign over moral revulsion at Nazi ideology. He had praised Nationalist Socialism early on, and only cooled to it because he saw a war coming and he wanted the army to have more time to prepare. But if that is a historic revision in the film, it’s an error of tone. Singer pushed for a thriller “close to documentary reality,” Stamp says. “Just being on that very authentic set gave me the creeps.”
“If we got this history right, it’s because of the Gestapo, frankly,” Singer says. “They did this thorough investigation into this crime. We had access to all their research as well as eyewitness accounts. I had lunch with Hitler’s bodyguard, with Stauffenberg’s children, historians.
“But in the end, we’ve seen The History Channel version of this. What I wanted to get at was the thriller side of it, the tension, a way of entertaining the audience and maybe making them curious enough to go rent ‘Shoah,’ ‘Schindler’s List’ or ‘The Pianist.’”