Valkyrie (2008) Operation Valkyrie or The Last Attempt to Assassinate Hitler

I suppose it wasn’t in Eichmann‘s favour that I re-watched Valkyrie just before I saw Eichmann. I would say I liked Valkyrie even better the second time. I’m sure it is a movie which aims at entertaining and plays on emotions but at least that is very well done and Tom Cruise is outstanding in this movie. I do have huge problems with the man Tom Cruise but I can’t help admiring the actor.

The movie opens in North Africa in 1942. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is far from content with the regime and openly utters his criticism. Before retreating with his troops he gets under attack and loses his right hand, an eye and two fingers on the left hand.

Some time later, back in Berlin, after a painful recovery, he is recruited by a group of high German officers and politicians who want to overthrow the regime. They think it is of the highest importance to do something in order to let the world see that there were not only Nazis in Germany.  The way to go according to these men is to assassinate Hitler. Preferably together with Himmler. After several failed attempts they recruit von Stauffenberg. He seems to be the only one to be able to come up with a plan and to see it through.

Assassinating Hitler isn’t enough. At the same time the group needs to assure that the Army is on their side. The idea von Stauffeberg comes up with is ingenious and based on adapting “Operation Valkyrie” to their own needs.  The amended Operation Valkyrie would enable them to seize control of Berlin after the assassination of the Führer.

As this movie is based on historical facts, I don’t suppose it is a spoiler to say that they failed. The plan was cunning, the execution well done but bad luck and bad timing prevented a success. All the men participating in the coup were executed.  This is one of those movies during which we hope against all hope and constantly wonder why it didn’t work.

Just like Sophie Scholl, Valkyrie manages to show what courageous and unselfish people are capable of doing.

The movie Eichmann illustrates very well that a fascinating topic doesn’t guarantee a good movie. Even though Valkyrie is a US-German co-production it’s pure Hollywood but it’s very well acted and gripping despite the fact that we know the outcome.

The way the story is told and the cast makes this such a good movie. Apart from Tom Cruise, the actors worth mentioning are Kenneth Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, Bill Nighy as General Freidrich Olbricht, Thomas Kretschmann as Major Otto Ernst Remer and Carice van Houten as Nina von Stauffenberg. The only bad choice was David Bamber as Hitler. I think he’s the worst Hitler I’ve ever seen.

Valkyrie is based on a great story and very well told. While it’s not flawless, it’s still a must-see.

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19 thoughts on “Valkyrie (2008) Operation Valkyrie or The Last Attempt to Assassinate Hitler

  1. Guy Savage says:

    I had to laugh about what you said about Tom Cruise the actor vs the man. Totally agree–but I haven’t watched a Tom Cruise film in ages. Still that said, I’ve enjoyed a few in the past, but currently, to pinch kevin’s phrase, I’m suffering from ‘nazi fatigue” after watching a Love to Hide–a terribly sad film about two gay men in nazi occupied Paris.

  2. nem baj says:

    This is an entertaining thriller, especially as it deals with the planning and execution of a full scale military coup d’état, more than with the assassination attempt itself.

    If, as Clausewitz put it, war is the continuation of politics by other means, the character of Stauffenberg in Valkyrie illustrates that politics may sometimes be, in highly critical times, the continuation of war by other means. The human qualities associated with warfare – audacity, tenacity, decision-making capacity, leadership etc. – can do wonders when it comes to shifting the political balance of even the most established power.

    Mr Cruise is always at his best in his ‘robotic mode’, and delivers here an impressive performance. As the seasoned supporting cast makes an excellent job at conveying more complex psychological and political issues at stake within his co-conspirators, Cruise gives Stauffenberg’s character the dimension of a lonely man fighting against all odds, and mostly his own side. Which makes for a quite enjoyable suspense.

    I think Hitler’s characterisation is excellent for both scriptwriting and historical reasons.

    First, to portray him as some kind of a powerhouse, as Stauffenberg’s arch-nemesis, would have ruined the whole thing. His characterisation is coherent with the fact that we never see what the ‘bad guys’ are up to; doing otherwise would have focused our viewing interest on the issue of a lost battle. This isn’t a wrestling contest beetween two characters: as you pointed out, the suspense is about how far the determination of Stauffenberg can get him.

    Secondly, the fact that this somehow pitiful führer still retains such an obvious stranglehold on so many members of the armed forces underlines a very important aspect. It was not only about the Military having sworn an oath, not only about the tactics of propaganda and terror used by the regime, but also about a spell casted upon the German people. Incidentally, since you recently reviewed Eichmann, it reminds me of one fantastic scene in the (very bizarre) movie The Man in the Glass Booth where Maximilian Schell attempts to enact the mystical dimension of Hitler’s attraction, and the love so many Germans felt for him. Until they didn’t.

    By the way, in Usual Suspects by the same scriptwriter, Keyser Söze is also a character whose only mention inspires legendary awe, yet whose appearance is unremarkable.

    In spite of these qualities, Valkyrie has its limits. The cinematography is rather bland (but then I always value meaningful shot composition and editing over historical re-creation). And Bryan Singer is no Anthony Mann, whereas Tom Cruise is no Jimmy Stewart: Stauffenberg is ‘a man with a task to accomplish’, yet there is no tragic dimension in Valkyrie. Nevertheless, this is excellent entertainment indeed.

    PS : I also have a slight reservation about how this movie might be interpreted as a contest beetween ‘good Wehrmacht’ vs ‘bad Nazis’. In particular, Goering is a very ambiguous character which is never dealt with. Not only was he a symbol that the line couldn’t be drawn that clearly, but if I remember well, many historians think that, had the coup succeeded, he would eventually have taken over.

    • nem baj says:

      Sorry, I seem to have mismatched the italics! 😦

    • It’s very entertaining and really like a thriller. I did compare to The Downfall which is still one of the best movies on Hitler and Nazism, I think and compared to that, it’s bland indeed. That’s why I called it pure Hollywood, it’s quite glossy.
      I didn’t have a problem with the way Hitler was shown but with the actor. Not only did he not look like him but there was no attempt to sound like him either. Maybe because he spoke English they chose not to have him talk like Hitler.
      “Robotic mode” is true but I thought he still triggered a very emotional reaction. And so did Nighy as Olbricht.
      I’m not sure about ” a spell cast”. I think what made it work, was that hardly any people was so trained to obey as the German’s were.
      I really loved Napola for showing the influence of the black pedagogy on the success of Nazism.
      No worries about the italics.

      • nem baj says:

        Sure, there are many factors involved. Yet, one of the keys can be found in the influence of Romanticism, as for instance in the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.(starting at 6:20). A night-dedicated, deadly, symbiotic love, relieving from all fears… brrrr…

        I do not think that a movie can pretend to be about nazi Germany without confronting nazi aesthetics – and by confronting, I certainly don’t mean re-creating, which is the opposite. Thus, I’m afraid I do not value very highly the whole wave of recent productions like The Downfall.

      • I did like The Downfall a lot. I think Bruno Ganz is outstandin. But I alos liked it because it focusses on one short perdiod and the young secretary is an interesting person. I don’t think that age is an excuse, nor did she, that’s why I thought it was well done.
        You didn’t like Napola (I think it’s called Before the Fall in English)? The Ogre isn’t bad at portraying Nazi ideology either.

      • nem baj says:

        I haven’t seen Napola, sorry. What I liked about The Ogre was the use of the fairytale narrative form, since nazi ideologues were quite fond of that form of art, and XIXth century german folklore in general. Now, my interest in aesthetics (in general) when it comes to that place and that period is certainly personal.

        I have spent some time, at the end of the 80’s, in the former barracks of Göring’s own regiment in Berlin (the Wall and the Russian Army were still around). Among other things, I still remember vividly the impression made by the architecture of the Olympia Stadion and its monumental alley on the young man in uniform that I was.

        As I appreciated – I still do – a good part of the German artistic productions of the XIXth and early XXth centuries, I couldn’t help wondering how one thing could lead to another…

      • Tournier who wrote the book on which The Ogre is based asks himself the very same question. I’ve meant to read the novel but never did. He is particularly fond of German romanticism and like many others couldn’t understand how both were possible. I’m not sure the English translation of his book’s title as The Ogre is appropriate.
        I think Napola does a good job and showing indoctrination.

    • nem baj says:

      The French book is a masterpiece (unless one doesn’t like Tournier’s style).

      By the way, these ‘cultural’ aspects are oddly dealt with in Valkyrie. There’s hardly a scene with the children (strange because it has been established that Stauffenberg didn’t like Wagner), and a short explanation by the führer

      Stauffenberg himself seems hardly concerned, whereas on the contrary the real Graf was full of high ideals about germanic heroism and mysticism (so was his brother Claude, whose absence in the movie is noticeable). This is one of the reasons why I wouldn’t call the film ‘accurate’.

      However, as I said above it didn’t prevent me from finding it entertaining. Scriptwriters make choices, and it certainly would have been less powerful in that department had that part ot the man been evoked, as the character would have become much less understandable and… likable for today’s audiences.

      PS: I’ll try to watch Napola if I can find it here, though as other commentators put it I’d like to avoid ‘nazi fatigue’… 😉

      • That’s why it’s very Hollywood. the focus is much more on the actions of Stauffenberg than on his ideology.
        I don’t mind a lack of accuracy as much as many others as a movie has always afictionla dimension. I would resent it in a documentary.
        I liked those of Tournier’s books I’ve read so fast. it’s just a matter of time until i will get to Le Roi des Aulnes.

  3. the war movie buff says:

    I have to say that few war movies are more accurate than this movie. I do not know if it could have been better. You have to give the producers credit for making a big budget film that does not have a happy ending and did not have a big market. (I still wonder how this movie got green-lighted) Some of that credit has to go to Cruise. I do not like the man either, but I have to say his role in “Tropic Thunder” softened me toward him as an actor.

    BTW I have always wondered why Von Stauffenberg was given a quick death when many lesser figures were tortured to death.

    • I had a few reservations, minor ones. I thought the guy who played Hitler was badly chosen. As for accuracy, I’m not so familiar with the details, it felt pretty accurate. I really couldn’t answer your last question at all.

      • Björn says:

        Bamber’s Hitler wasn’t bad at all. Didn’t get much screen time, though, and we are forever spoiled by Bruno Ganz’ portrayal in “Downfall”.

      • I suppose it’s hard after Ganz, yes but I have seen some who convinced me as well only I cannot come up with the names right now.

    • nem baj says:

      About your last question, Peter Hoffmann’s stance is reflected in the film: General Fromm wanted to cover his own tracks.

  4. […] having watched the excellent Valkyrie (here is my review), starring Tom Cruise, I wanted to see how the Germans had treated the very same story just a few […]

  5. (1) I still have difficulty seeing Tom Cruise as an aristocratic Wehrmacht officer of field rank.
    (2) I was disorientated by the miscellany of accents.
    (3) Accepting the director’s determination re:(2), it seems he was unable to resist using that word: ‘Fuehrer’!

    • I’m not sure whether you’ve seen my other review on “STauffenberg” the German movie on the same story… I touch on a few of the problems you mention. I found Tom Cruise too slick too much like an automaton. And he certainly doesn’t look like a German artistocratic Wehrmacht officer.

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