Audiences rarely see American films about the German perspective of World War II and Nazism. There is Lewis Milestone’s 1930 antiwar classic All Quiet on the Western Front but it is set during World War I. Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Cross of Iron (1977) shovels scorn upon the treatment of German soldiers by their careerist seniors and psychotic Nazi commanders, but it is a criminally underappreciated film that few people have seen. Valkyrie is hence an intriguing film for Hollywood to make because it is told from a German perspective and, like Cross of Iron, it sharply distinguishes the differences between members of the Nazi regime and the regular German army.
Valkyrie is based on the assassination attempt that was made on Adolf Hitler’s life in 1944. The plot to kill Hitler was highly organised and involved prominent German military officers and politicians. Claus von Stauffenberg, a severally wounded Colonel, who in Valkyrie is portrayed as being completely opposed to Hitler on both nationalistic and moral grounds, led the operation. He realises that in order to become a true German patriot, he must become a traitor. In a possible dig at the recent Iraq War, Strauffenberg is depicted as being wise enough to realise that it is not enough to remove the man at the top of the chain of command, there must be a plan for what happens next. Hence the collaborators create an ingenious plan to turn the German reserve army and SS against each other, using emergency powers labelled Operation Valkyrie.
Valkyrie is a slow burning thriller with an emphasis on the plotting and planning rather than action. Even though we know that the plot did not succeed, Valkyrie does give us a tantalising feeling that Stauffenberg just might succeed in saving Europe from Hitler. The build up of tension on 20 June 1944, the day the assassination attempt takes place, is almost unbearable. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) gives Valkyrie the same cool, crisp and almost washed out look that he used in the X-Men films and Superman Returns, heightening the constant threat of exposure.
Tom Cruise plays Strauffenberg with the type of determined conviction that you could imagine that such a man would have had. The biggest flaw in Valkyrie however is the depiction of Strauffenberg as a man who is far too perfect. By portraying Strauffenberg as so incredibly clean cut in his devotion to his family, his love for his country and his hatred of Nazism, he becomes a two dimensional character that is difficult to believe. What motivated the actual Strauffenberg is far more complex than clear-cut moral convictions and Valkyrie does suffer for excluding the more complicated details about him.
There are other minor issues about Valkyrie that may frustrate. It assumes knowledge of the Holocaust, barely mentioning the Nazi atrocities let alone depicting them. Unlike the upcoming film The Reader (Stephen Daldry), which does not make any fuss over the fact that the actors play Germans but speak in English, Valkyrie draws too much attention to it. Accents are mixed and the film begins with the rather contrived technique of having Cruise narrate in subtitled German, which then fades into English. Nevertheless, Valkyrie is a decent historical thriller, which remains reasonably respectful to its source material.