Germany, 1943. The 14th attempt to assassinate Hitler by his own side has just gone wrong. The conspirators need a new plan. Enter crippled Wehrmacht hero Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise), with a bold plot to blow up Hitler in his Wolfs Lair.
Currently worming its way into online legend is the Downfall mash-up. Taking a scene from the Hitler’s-last-days masterpiece, where the Führer (Bruno Ganz) is informed of the encirclement of Berlin, various YouTube wags have inserted their own subtitles, riffing on everything from a World Of Warcraft ban to Lampard signing for Inter Milan. Its digital proliferation is bad timing for Valkyrie; just as the latest movie to depict the Third Reich’s twilight arrives, the last one seals its reputation with the ascendancy into parody. Comparisons are unavoidable, and Bryan Singer’s first non-superhero movie since Apt Pupil can only crumple under their weight. It’s hard to imagine there ever being a Valkyrie mash-up.
Not that it’s the folly some pundits predicted. But, for all the apparent risks (not least asking us to accept swastika-pin-wearing heroes), Valkyrie is a surprisingly safe movie. The role of Stauffenberg doesn’t demand much from Tom Cruise that he hasn’t already adeptly supplied for years. Nobody does the clenched-jawed, steely-eyed glare better; simmering defiance and hard-focused action are Cruise specialities.
Stauffenberg is a cut-glass hero with just enough flaws — be they physical (he’s missing an eye and seven fingers) or psychological (he’s proud and inflexible) — to lend a third dimension. It’s as if Singer and co-writers Nathan Alexander and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) decided we wouldn’t accept the man; we had to witness the monument. Stauffenberg arrives on-screen with no history, just a voiceover (cross-fading from German to English) establishing that he thinks Hitler is bad, and a vignette which succinctly reveals his tactical mastery and compassion.
There’s little sense of Stauffenberg as a character propelled by that strange tangle of impulses, memories, principles and delusions which guide any of us. He is simply there, like any of the stalwart Brits (and occasional Germans) who fill out the cast, to service the plot. And, indeed, The Plot. That’s what Valkyrie’s all about: the famous conspiracy to blow Hitler back into Satan’s arms. Even here Singer doesn’t quite deliver. After a virtuoso eureka-moment sequence which sees his camera gradually revolving up to 78rpm so we can read the label on a spinning record (Wagner’s Flight Of The Valkyries, of course), things whip along so urgently that it’s easy to miss details.
Thankfully, most of our reservations are forgotten come the final act. As the coup kicks off, the drama truly grips. The finest incidents concern this story’s minor players: the teletypists who have to grapple with conflicting orders (should they pass on Stauffenberg’s order to arrest Goebbels, or Goebbels’ to arrest Stauffenberg?), and the reservist army officer (played with dry wit by Thomas Kretschmann) who has to follow those contradictory orders through. In one sense he’s the most important character in the entire film, and certainly the protagonist of the film’s pivotal scene. You almost wish the entire story had been about him...
A film more concerned with how than why or who, Valkyrie would have benefited from more scrutiny and complexity. Still, once the bomb goes off, the thrills come in spades.