Any problem on earth can be solved by the careful application of high explosives.
— Col. Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel)
Early in Valkyrie, Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) has a brief visit with his family. It’s 1944 and he’s just returned from North Africa, where he was serving his Führer. Now he’s missing a hand, an eye, and a couple of fingers from the remaining hand — losses underscored by the loving touch of his devoted wife Nina (Carice van Houten, horribly underused). Stauffenberg’s initial pleasure at the sight of her changes as he watches their three children play — it’s okay that the boys are scampering across the polished wood floor waving wooden swords and wearing paper crowns, but his expression changes when he sees his precious blond daughter don his colonel’s cap and turn to salute him. As the camera closes on Stauffenberg’s suddenly unsmiling face, his own immediate plans — unknown thus far to the wife — become oppressive. Disillusioned by the “crimes committed by the Nazis,” including the “mass execution of Jews,” as he puts in an opening voiceover, Stauffenberg has signed on for a conspiracy to kill Hitler (David Bamber), in hopes of reclaiming German honor before the war is lost.
At this moment, looking at his daughter as an embodiment of that salvageable future, Stauffenberg ponders how to tell Nina what he’s up to, and moreover, that the scheme’s failure will mean almost certain death for her and the children. Alas, the scene spirals into symbolic hyperbole: Cruise composes his face into his signature taut-jaw look, the record player turns and turns in an ominous overhead camera shot, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” echoes as an air raid begins, bombs crashing and sirens sounding. The record skips.
But no. There’s more. After a frightening night in the family’s bomb shelter basement, Stauffenberg marches into the office of his fellow conspirators and announces his great new idea, inspired by these very events. They will not only kill Hitler, but they will also arrange ahead of time how to take over the government. Unlike previous assassination attempts (and historians have since recorded 15), this one will exploit the Nazi government’s own contingency plan for how to proceed without the leader, and will specifically ensure that the SS is out of commission, or at least entangled in confrontations with the regular army, thus distracted. The plan, he says, is already in place, and will need only a few twitches to make it work for the assassins. It is called, he says (cue another close-up of the star’s clenched jaw), “Operation Valkyrie.”
This series of Valkyrie-name-drops lay out the basic limitation of this historically inspired thriller. It offers, on one hand, director Bryan Singer’s infamous deftness, displayed as the conspiracy evolves in slivers of scenes, with sharp-edged performances by the Brits playing Stauffenberg’s co-conspirators. On the other hand, however, the film’s forward motion is stalled by such overkilling images, which also undercut those very performances.
Stauffenberg is supported by a cadre of angry aging men, including Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), whose several previous assassination attempts against Hitler and Heinrich Himmler are reduced to a single incident involving a bomb in a Cointreau bottle, the suspicious General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), and the high-living pragmatist Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard). As entertaining as these fellows are, however, the film keeps a close focus on
Stauffenberg, which ends up distracting from the necessary messiness of the very broad plan. A practicing Catholic who resists Nazi immorality and racism, he writes, “My duty as an officer is no longer to save my country, but to save human lives… Hitler is not only the archenemy of the entire world, but the archenemy of Germany.” Stauffenberg’s decision to act is premised on a deeply felt nationalism, on top of a commitment to more general principles like human rights and anti-totalitarianism. Like many of his fellow conspirators, he has gone along with the Führer and made his way through the military ranks — until he can’t live with what he sees as officially condoned depravity.
While it’s common historical practice to set the Nazis apart from all others before or since, Stauffenberg’s questions are worth pondering in various circumstances. He articulates his own interest in “history” as a judgment to be cast in the future (“If I die now,” he laments, “I leave nothing to my children but shame”). At the same time, he performs ruthlessly, willing to commit himself absolutely and able to move others to act even when they’re reluctant. He contacts/threatens Fellgiebel by leaving his own glass eyeball in the man’s drink in a Nazi nightclub. And he puts on a great show to test the potential allegiance of General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), Commander in Chief of the Reserve Army and military careerist with no visible ideological compunctions. Throughout their meeting, Stauffenberg is gruff and elemental, until the general exhorts him to do the “Sieg Heil” salute. Furious that the man is pulling rank, as it were, mission leader Stauffenberg pulls right back, stopping in a dramatic low-angled shot to salute with his stump, which he thrusts to the ceiling in a display of utter contempt. Pushed to the blurry background of his own office, Fromm is only one of many villains the film pits against its increasingly staunch hero.
That staunchness becomes a problem: once he’s in motion, Stauffenberg has nowhere to go. Stoic, stiff, and patently wounded, he might represent all those soldiers who have followed wrongheaded or immoral orders and regretted doing so. But Valkyrie doesn’t reach so boldly. It settles for symbolism rather than resonance.