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February 27, 2009

How historically accurate is Valkyrie? Brendan Simms on Valkyrie - Bryan Singer

Posted by Brendan Simms

Directed by Bryan Singer
certificate 12A, 2008

The announcement nearly two years ago, that Tom Cruise was to star in a Hollywood production on the failed July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler produced widespread derision. Many doubted that Cruise had the depth to play the key figure, Colonel von Stauffenberg. His highly publicised membership of the cultist Church of Scientology, which is illegal in Germany, outraged the authorities. The federal government initially threatened that it would refuse the right to film at some of the key surviving locations in Berlin. Noises off from academic experts and relatives of the conspirators were not encouraging.

Shooting was also plagued by delays, all of them chronicled with Schadenfreude by the German press. But Cruise got there in the end, the right to film in the legendary "Bendlerblock" in the courtyard of which Stauffenberg was executed, was eventually granted. The result, the recently released Valkyrie is if not a masterpiece certainly a memorable film, which every German schoolchild should watch.

For a start, the casting is much better than the publicity, and the rather wooden trailers, led us to expect. Some of the characters, such as Christian Berkel's Mertz von Quirnheim are eerily exact. Bill Nighy (of Love Actually fame) is also highly convincing as General Olbricht. He catches the fateful indecision of the man on 20 July perfectly, even if this viewer sometimes expected him to break into a rendition of "love is all around you".

Cruise himself is a barnstorming Stauffenberg, to whom he bears an uncanny physical resemblance. To be sure, he doesn't quite capture the aristocratic bearing, but has the bullishness of a generation which nowadays can only be played by British or American actors. They just don't build Germans like Stauffenberg any more. The only person who is really miscast is Kenneth Branagh, who comes nowhere near conveying the tortured ambivalence of Henning von Tresckow.

Inevitably, cinematic adaptations simplify, flatten and abbreviate. Here we are thrown more or less into the middle of the action at the outset, which effectively deprives the viewer of all background information. This is a pity, because while the extent and gravity of Hitler's crimes probably don't need elucidation, the twisted path which led many Germans to resist him certainly requires some sketching in.

Portraying Stauffenberg's early admiration for National Socialism, for example, or Tresckow's complicity in horrific massacres on the eastern front might have complicated the heroic narrative, but would have made them more rounded characters. Also, some might see the portrayal of Olbricht as unduly harsh, for while the general certainly wavered on the day, he was as his recent biographer Helena Schrader has shown - unlike Stauffenberg - very much a resister of the first hour.

All that said, the film works brilliantly at two levels. First of all, it is a cracking historical thriller which grips until the final reel, even though the outcome is well known. The detail struck me as highly authentic, right down to the ubiquitous mosquitoes around the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia.

Secondly, the film's scope and budget gives one a much clearer sense than one would otherwise have had of the sheer sophistication and extent of the conspiracy. The conspirators burrowed into the Nazis's own plan - from whose codename "Valkyrie" the film takes its title - to suppress an internal emergency (whether caused by local putschists, allied paratroops or the more likely eventuality of a mass rising by foreign slave workers) and subverted it. As Bryan Singer's extras fan out across Berlin in a massive display of military force, we get to see how they very nearly turned the regime's strength against itself.

Watching the final excruciating half hour, as the plot slowly unravelled, one is simultaneously struck by the weakness and strength of Hitler's governing style. So far from being paranoid, at least until this point, Hitler had thrived on giving his military and administrative elites sufficient room to explore their lethal creativity. This made him extraordinarily vulnerable to enemies within the walls.

It is impossible to imagine, for example, Stalin initialling unread a revised plan to deal with domestic unrest. This is exactly what Hitler does in the scene when Stauffenberg presented him with a new version of "Valkyrie" to which orders to apprehend the SS and party leaders had been added. This did not quite happen the way it is portrayed in the film, but the essential truth of Hitler's style is captured well enough. Here we must not mistake the Fuehrer's trust for laziness. For it was this very flexibility which also made Hitler's power so resilient.

What blunted the coup was the decision of the communications supreme in Berlin to pass on the messages from the Wolf's Lair, rather than those from Olbricht's office in the Reserve Army Headquarters. What killed it was the quick-wittedness of the commander of the standby battalion, the ardent national socialist Ernst Otto Remer, who disobeyed the order to arrest Goebbels once he had spoken to Hitler in person.

It is a sobering thought, that in the end, the regime was saved not because the troops followed orders - thanks to the thoroughness of the plotters these remained ambiguous - but because key personnel acted on their own initiative.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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