Even though most viewers of Valkyrie realize that Adolf Hitler was not assassinated by rebellious German Army officers on 20 June 1944, the film directed by Bryan Singer still offers plenty of suspense and intrigue. Starring Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, along with a terrific cast of British actors including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy and Eddie Izzard, the movie skillfully tells the story of the most serious attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime from the inside.
Valkyrie is released on DVD this week by MGM Home Entertainment in single disc, two-disc Special Edition and Blu-ray versions. The latter two versions come with some excellent special features that detail the historical significance of the plot against Hitler, the heroism of Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators and the efforts made by Singer and his cast and crew to, as producer/co-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie puts it in one of the DVD commentaries, “capture the spirit of the resistance.”
In another commentary featuring Singer, Cruise and McQuarrie and in the DVD documentary The Journey to Valkyrie, the “difficulties” the filmmakers had in securing permission from the German government to shoot in the actual settings in Berlin where the events depicted took place are discussed. Yet, as an example of the limitations of some DVD commentaries, one of the major contributing factors in the German government’s initial opposition to allowing filming has been left out of the discussion — Cruise’s identification with the religion of Scientology.
But let’s backtrack a bit. Stauffenberg, an aristocratic officer who deplored the Nazis’ murder of the Jews, their treatment of POWs and their bringing ruin to the German nation, was seriously injured during combat in North Africa. Already known by some officers for his anti-fascist views, once he recovered he was recruited into the ranks of the conspirators after other efforts to kill Hitler had failed. He developed a new plan of action — to kill Hitler, who was staying outside of Berlin in a heavily guarded forest encampment, with a bomb, and then try to seize power by claiming that the SS was trying to stage a coup.
Although their efforts failed and the principal conspirators, including Stauffenberg, were either shot by firing squad or hung, the resisters are now renowned in Germany for their heroism. Another DVD documentary, The Valkyrie Legacy, offers a detailed history of the plot and its aftermath.
When Singer and his writers, McQuarrie (with whom the director won an Oscar for their screenplay for The Usual Suspects) and Nathan Alexander, decided to make a movie about this act of resistance, they succeeded in casting one of Hollywood’s biggest stars—Cruise (who actually bears a strong resemblance to Stauffenberg)— in the main role. And they secured financing—an estimated $75 million—from United Artists, the division of MGM then run by Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner.
After the filmmakers first obtained permits, in 2007, to shoot scenes at the Messe Berlin, an old Nazi building that survived the war, and the Bendler Block complex, the actual place where the conspirators gathered, where Stauffenberg was executed and which now houses a memorial to German resisters, the German government reversed its decision.
Singer explains this all as a “misunderstanding”, in which the government was concerned about how a big Hollywood movie would treat a subject so dear to German sensibilities. This unease is corroborated by a government spokesman interviewed for one of the DVD documentaries. Singer and Cruise say that after speaking with government officials, they were able to allay such fears.
But, according to contemporary reports in the New York Times, a spokesman for the German Defense Ministry maintained that the prime reason for not allowing access to these sites was Cruise’s affiliation with Scientology, which the German government regards as a dangerous sect or cult. And that decision was supported by Stauffenberg’s eldest son, Berthold Graf von Stauffenberg, a retired West German army general, who said, “Scientology is a totalitarian religion. The fact that an avowed Scientologist like Mr. Cruise is supposed to play the victim of a totalitarian regime is purely sick.”
The Valkyrie filmmakers had important defenders, however. German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who had recently won a best foreign film Academy Award for The Lives of Others, strongly disagreed with his government. He told a prominent German newspaper, according to the Times, that this film “would promote Germany’s image more than 10 football (soccer) World Cups.” And other members of the Stauffenberg family also supported the film, including another son of the martyred soldier who had been a member of the European Parliament, and a grandson, who has a small part in Valkyrie.
Eventually, the German government relented and Singer was able to film some crucial scenes at their actual locations. Footage from The Journey to Valkyrie documentary includes Cruise speaking to the cast and crew at the Bendler Block before the start of filming, expressing his appreciation for the opportunity and his reverence for the site’s significance.
In any event, the result is a movie that has a realistic look and ambiance to go along with its suspenseful story. It succeeds in showing, in the words of screenwriter Alexander, that “Not all Germans who served in World War II were Nazis.” Some, indeed, were true heroes in their efforts to stop the Holocaust and the barbarism of Hitler and his henchmen.
If only they had succeeded.