With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
At secondary school I distinctly recall a group of friends who had a negative perception of Germany and Germans in general, their reason being because of the Second World War. I questioned their reasoning, arguing a war that ended 50 years ago is now history and that no one is to blame in the present. If Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie had been around back then I would have insisted my misguided friends watch it. Like Sophie Scholl (2005), Valkyrie reveals the discontent amongst many Germans who had no say in going to war but risked their lives in defiance of Hitler.
The film is set in 1944 and focuses on the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler (David Bamber) and implement Operation Valkyrie. Valkyrie was the emergency formation of the Reserve Army to secure the government and prevent chaos and uprisings in the event of such crises as cities being bombed, communications lost with key government officials and, in this case, something happening to Hitler. A group of conspirators recruit disgruntled German soldier Colonel Claus von Stauffenburg (Tom Cruise) to join the plot which is simply to kill Hitler but von Stauffenburg comes up with the idea of using Operation Valkyrie for the purpose of a coup d’etat. Immediately after Hitler’s assassination Valkyrie is to begin which will secure Berlin, install a new government and lead to the arrest of Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel) officers including the likes of Goebbels. The film traces von Stauffenburg’s reasons for joining the plot and the attempted assassination and coup on 20 July 1944.
Valkyrie begins with von Stauffenburg fighting in Africa but even there he is showing signs of rebellion against Germany, making critical remarks in his diary. When the German army is attacked by Allied planes von Stauffenburg is so badly wounded he has an arm amputated, two fingers on his left hand removed and loses the sight in his left eye. Back in Germany he is clearly resentful of the sacrifice he has made for a government he despises. Von Stauffenburg is given the chance of revenge when he is invited to join in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. This isn’t the first time the plotters have made attempts on Hitler’s life. At the start of the film Major General Henning von Tesckow (Kenneth Branagh) plants a bomb on Hitler’s private plane, but when it fails to go off he has to retrieve it. General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) recruits von Stauffenburg to join the plotters that include General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Dr Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally) and Erwin von Witzleben (David Schofield). Von Stauffenburg is stunned to find the plotters plan to assassinate Hitler but have not thought about the aftermath. During an air raid von Stauffenberg is listening to Wagner’s The Valkyrie and comes up with the idea of using Operation Valkyrie with some amendments to facilitate a coup with the plotters making up a new German government after Hitler’s death and the arrest of his key officers. The hope is that once the new government is installed they will immediately negotiate peace with the Allies and bring the war to an end.
Unsurprisingly Valkyrie is a very tense film especially when von Stauffenburg attends one of Hitler’s meetings at Wolf’s Lair, German headquarters situated in East Prussia (Poland), to instigate the assassination attempt. In the run up to the plot von Stauffenburg meets with Hitler to propose amendments to Operation Valkyrie, which require the fuhrer’s signature, that will help facilitate the planned coup of the Nazi regime. Hitler is too distracted in praise of von Stauffenburg to properly read the document and gladly signs it, trusting that a German soldier who is a shining example to others in his sacrifices will have amended Valkyrie in a way that is beneficial to the security of the government. Once von Stauffenburg has joined the plotters we don’t have to wait long for the assassination attempt which occurs before we’re even an hour into the film. The first attempt by von Stauffenburg ends in failure when he is told that both Hitler and Himmler, head of the SS, must be at the same meeting and assassinated together. When Himmler fails to show, von Stauffenburg quickly telephones General Olbricht for permission to continue with the assassination regardless but his request is refused! At the second attempt von Stauffenburg returns to Wolf’s Lair and this time places the briefcase containing a bomb under the table where Hitler is meeting with his officers and advisors. The bomb goes off and although Von Stauffenburg sees the explosion he cannot confirm if Hitler is killed or not but assumes he has been. Returning to Berlin it’s time to instigate Operation Valkyrie.
The second half of the film is fast and frantic as Valkyrie is in full flow. It’s amazing to witness just how close the conspirators came to success. Of course, the audience will know that as the film is set in July 1944 and Hitler didn’t commit suicide until April 1945 that Valkyrie does not have a happy ending. After early success with Operation Valkyrie where the Reserve Army and the police are on the conspirators’ side word soon reaches Berlin that Hitler is definitely alive. As part of an oath that Germans swore to Hitler, they were bound to him until he died, meaning arresting him as part of a coup was not enough; he needed to be assassinated for success. The conspiracy falls apart and von Stauffenburg and the rest of the plotters face extreme punishment for their acts of treason. The film reveals the sorry fates of all involved and the only consolation we can take from the tragic conclusion is in knowing that Hitler’s downfall was not far away. Valkyrie remains a tense and gripping drama throughout and offers further enlightenment into German history.
Valkyrie is an eye-opening experience, revealing the level of discontent in Germany under Hitler and the Nazis. The credits at the end reveal that the July 20 Plot was one of fifteen known plots to assassinate Hitler during the war. With the penalties for failure being death and the murders of your entire family the costs for treason were high but the likes of von Stauffenburg took the chance anyway in the hope of giving Germany something better. Such individuals endure in history and witnessing recreations of their lives on the big screen or in books is always a pleasure.
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