No home video review should begin by claiming that the best thing about the viewing experience is an extra feature – but there it is. I really did not care for Bryan Singers’ Valkyrie (2009); a perfunctory thriller at best that does about as much for the WWII history buff or war aficionado as discovering a maggot-coated Hersey bar wrapped in cellophane on a piece of Weimar Republic fine bone china. It’s hard to imagine any movie about 1944’s insiders’ plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler as boring. But Valkyrie unequivocally proves that you can make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, even with everybody’s universally ‘loved to be hated’ villain at the crux of the conspiracy.
Difficult to assess where the blame should go; to Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s rather droll, mostly factually, but completely unimaginative and lugubrious screenplay, or to Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast who do their utmost to reset our impressions of the ‘good German’ by revamping the byplay between characters so that it sounds more like cordial repartee over a game of cricket than the taut unraveling of a web of high stakes political intrigue amongst high ranking coconspirators. Has anyone in this cast ever heard a person of Germanic origin speak English before?!? No one herein even attempts an accent – not even an affected one – particularly Cruise, who compounds this glaring oversight by playing charismatic Col. Claus von Stauffenberg as though one end of a very long flagpole flying the swastika had suddenly been inserted into his rectum.
Bryan Singer should also pony up for this misfire – his pacing too pedestrian and sluggish, lacking a sense of immediacy. It’s a genuine shame none of the aforementioned live up to Bernhard Heinrich’s brilliant production design (mostly, redecorating existing locations with Nazi insignia), Cornelia Ott’s costumes and Newton Thomas Sigel’s luminous cinematography that, combined, capture the total essence of Hitler’s Germany – albeit without its throngs of sycophantic worshippers lining the streets of Berlin. It should be noted that Germany under the Fuhrer was hardly united in its praise. In fact, Valkyrie goes to great pains to dispel the myth that every soldier in the Germany army was an unrepentant Nazi stooge or gargoyle; bloodthirsty, soulless and cruel.
At the time Valkyrie was announced for pre-production Germany’s Finance Ministry denied filmmakers access to the various locations necessary to shoot the movie; publicly citing Tom Cruise’s devotion to scientology (regarded in Germany as a cult rather than a religion) as the reason, but perhaps privately more than a little concerned to see yet another depiction of this most unflattering chapter in their country’s history gruesomely resurrected with American stereotypes to boot. Singer appealed this ruling and, after his script was reviewed, was given carte blanche and his pick of locations.
The initial appeal to do the film for Christopher McQuarrie had been a casual tour of Berlin and the Bendlerblock where a plaque is dedicated to the real von Stauffenberg and others who defied Hitler and paid the ultimate price. Knowing absolutely nothing about Stauffenberg or the 1944 plot, McQuarrie took his own crash course in wartime history before co-writing the script and then approached Singer to direct. But perhaps Singer bit off a tad more than he could chew, certainly much more than the film’s scant 124 min. can sustain without becoming bluntly episodic in spots, and grossly glossed over it totem.
We open on a battlefield in Tunisia where Wehmacht Col. Claus von Staffenberg (Cruise) is encouraging his superior to evacuate. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Regrettably too, time has run out. Stauffenberg and the rest of his forces are attacked by RAF flyers that bomb and riddle the basecamp. Stauffenberg barely escapes this assault, losing two fingers, a hand and an eye in the process. We digress from this prologue to the first attempt on Adolph Hitler’s (David Bamber) life; a bomb implanted inside a carefully packaged cognac and ushered aboard Hitler’s private plane by Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh). Unfortunately, the bomb proves a dud and Tresckow must do some quick finagling to reacquire the liquor once the plane has landed in Berlin. After the SS arrest Maj. Gen. Hans Oster, Tresckow orders Gen. Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) to find a suitable ‘replacement’ – meaning another conspirator who can become complicit in their espionage. Stauffenberg fits the bill.
The other elitists in this complicated plot include retired Gen. Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin R. McNally) and Erwin von Witzleben (David Shofield). But a second bite at the same apple is not going to be easy. The Nazis are no fools and with the tide of victory already turning against Hitler’s armed forces, treachery is suspected and investigated by the Gestapo everywhere. In the meantime, Stauffenberg accepts his commission behind a desk in the Defense Ministry, returning home to his wife, Nina (Carice van Houten) and their two children. During a bombing raid, Stauffenberg comes up with the concept of using Hitler’s own plan of deployment for the Reserve Army against the Nazi regime. There’s just one problem. Well, alright…actually two. First, Gen. Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) must approve of the plan, as he is in control of the reserves. But Fromm is a wily sort, refusing to partake in Operation Valkyrie directly, but seemingly willing to observe it as a grand – if extremely dangerous – experiment from a distance. The other difficulty is that the orders, rewritten by Stauffenberg, must receive a signature from Hitler himself for authenticity’s sake.
Staffenberg attends Hitler in Bavaria in the presence of his trusted council, including Joseph Goebbels (Harvey Friedman), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (Kenneth Cranham), Reichfuhrer Heinrich Himmler (Matthias Friehof), Reich Marshal Hermann Goring (Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg) and Albert Speer (Manfred-Aton Algrang). Before these men, Hitler praises Stauffenberg’s heroism, and after a few tense moments of perusing the new orders, signs them without fail or suspicion.
Returning to Berlin, Stauffenberg is promoted by Fromm to secure him access to ‘the Wolf’s Lair’ – Hitler’s private bunker hidden deep in the Black Forest. The plan now is to detonate a small explosive device inside this cement compound that will exude the maximum damage, killing everyone inside. Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel) devises the use of a pencil as the bomb’s detonator while Stauffenberg persuades Gen. Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) to terminate all communications immediately following the bomb blast – thereby preventing the outside world from learning the truth until Operation Valkyrie can be properly executed.
On July 15, 1944 the plot is set in motion. But Himmler is not present at the bunker meeting and Stauffenberg is told to abort the mission. Despite these orders, Stauffenberg and Olbricht set the first part of Valkyrie – the mobilization of the reserves - into effect, a move that infuriates Fromm who threatens to expose them if they ever go over his head again. Later that evening Stauffenberg protests the indecisiveness of his coconspirators. In the resulting confrontation Goerdeler demands that Stauffenberg be relieved of his command. Instead, Goerdeler is informed by Beck that the SS have been tipped off and are presently seeking his arrest.
On July 20 Stauffenberg and his adjutant Lt. Werner von Haeften (Jamie Parker) make their second attempt on Hitler’s life. Too late Stauffenberg learns that the conference is being conducted in the summer barrack instead of the bunker because of the extreme summer heat. While Haeften nervously waits in the car Stauffenberg smuggles his briefcase with the bomb already armed into the meeting. He has Fellgiebel call him away at a moment’s notice, presumably with a phone call, and is barely outside the barracks when the bomb explodes. In the ensuing panic Stauffenberg assumes Hitler is dead and orders his driver to whisk him and Haeften to safety. Regrettably, Olbricht refuses to mobilize the reserves until concrete proof of Hitler’s death can be established. This oversight squanders valuable time for the plotters.
Mertz forges Olbricht’s signature, putting Operation Valkyrie into effect. The reserves descend on the party and the SS, making their arrests on masse at Stauffenberg’s command. Goebbels, who has foreseen their arrival, tucks a cyanide capsule between his teeth, telephoning the Wolf’s Lair only to learn that Hitler is still very much alive. Thus when Maj. Otto Ernst Remer (Thomas Kretschmann) arrives to seize Goebbels he is instead met with a phone call from Hitler who assures him the assassination plot has failed. Back at the Defense Ministry Strauffenberg realizes how badly he has bungled the mission. He and his coconspirators are taken by the SS to the Bendlerblock and shot for treason one at a time. A brief epilogue explains that Hitler committed suicide nine months later and that Nina and Stauffenberg’s children survived the ordeal.
Valkyrie is problematic on several levels. First and foremost is its downtrodden central narrative – the failed assassination of a universally despised historical figure – that leaves the viewer with a very hollow resolution at the end. But even without this somber scenario and its penultimate melancholy, Singer and his script have managed to diffuse and distill much of the real Stauffenberg’s heroic defiance into the pathetically bitter machinations of a disgruntled/disfigured soldier; the heroism itself becoming lost in Tom Cruise’s stoic and sullen portrayal of Stauffenberg as a man more out for personal revenge than the liberation of Germany from an unjust and utterly mad tyrant.
The second major hurdle never entirely overcome is Bryan Singer’s directorial inability to make the complex simple or even moderately fascinating. In an era where most directors would have staged the whole story in choppy edits from footage shot with a very unstable ‘steady-cam’ I really do have to commend Singer for going the old-fashioned route, employing stylish camera setups and cuts that have meaning. But he takes great pains to establish all of the players in some detail, then seems to get lost in the variables of the espionage, moving his characters around like exceptionally well-timed chess pieces that have about as much spark-generating interaction as a pile of wet kindling. The film does, in fact, briefly spring to life during the second, full blown execution of Operation Valkyrie, but by then we’ve become so bored with the previous mismanaged attempts on Hitler’s life that this latest seems foregone at the very least and very apropos.
I won’t go into the specifics of why casting doesn’t work. But apart from the general lack of attempt by anyone to even mimic a German accent we have some very fine thespians barely committed to some very inferior work. Most, if not all, have slept-walked their way through these performances – particularly Kenneth Branagh, whom I have pictured on set as giving his lines the thirty second once over before rattling them off and then making a B-line to cash in his paycheck. If that sounds glib or condescending, I’ll simply apologize herein and now. But I really don’t see a commitment on anyone’s part to ‘become’ their characters.
MGM/Fox Home Entertainment have given us Valkyrie in a breathtaking 1080p transfer. Yes, there are hints of digital noise scattered about, but on the whole the stylized image is very film-like with robust color, particularly the predominant ‘red’ in the Nazi flags. Fine detail is exceptionally realized and contrast levels are bang on. Shadow detail seems a tad crushed but there’s been no undue DNR compression applied so we won’t complain. The DTS 5.1 audio will rock the house during action sequences – with explosive bass and good separation – but sounds strangely muffled or too soft at normal listening levels during dialogue sequences. I suppose you can keep your hand on the remote and toggle back and forth between SFX laden sequences and talking scenes but why?
Extras include a pair of audio commentaries; the first from Singer, Cruise and McQuarrie, the second from McQuarrie and Alexander, a few very brief featurettes on the making of the film and behind the scenes devising of several key sequences. But without a doubt, the highlight of this disc is the 114 min. documentary ‘The Legacy of Valkyrie’ – a thorough and comprehensive documentary in HD produced by Kevin Burns with invaluable historical merit and a phenomenal amount of Kodachrome color footage showing Hilter’s Reich at the peak of its powers. This was the best part of my personal viewing experience. As Valkyrie can readily be found at Best Buy and elsewhere for less than $10, I would strongly recommend this disc to history buffs for this extra feature alone. Otherwise, Valkyrie is unconvincing entertainment with a very small ‘e’: two hours of my life that I can never get back. It was a waste of my time. Don’t let it waste yours.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)