Stauffenberg (2004 Germany) and Valkyrie (2008 – US) Compared

After 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 years prior to the US production. Stauffenberg is a TV production, starring Sebastian Koch (Black Book, Das Leben der Anderen) as Stauffenberg. Ulrich Tukur (Das Leben der Anderen, The White Ribbon) can be seen in the role of Henning von Tresckow. While Carice van Houten who played Stauffenberg’s wife in Valkyrie looks very different from the real Nina von Stauffenberg, Nina Kunzendorf’s likeness is uncanny.

I don’t think it’s of any use to summarize the movie. Since it’s a true story the plots of the two films are almost identical, however there are some significant differences in the way the story is told which make it worthwhile to compare the two movies.

The title Stauffenberg already indicates that the focus is much less on Operation Valkyrie than on the man Stauffenberg himself. And that’s actually the biggest problem of this TV production. It is quite confusing and for someone not familiar with the story, it isn’t clear what Operation Valkyrie is. I was glad I had seen the US film first or I would have been a bit lost as I wasn’t familiar with the whole story.

While Valkyrie starts with Stauffenberg in Africa, it starts much earlier in this film. We see Stauffenberg first in Berlin, whit his fiancée and future wife Nina, later he is in Poland and only then in Africa. This helps to understand his motivations and his development from someone who believed in Hitler to somebody who was entirely disgusted and ready to kill the man.

What worked far better in this TV production is to make us understand why the assassination failed. The characters in this film are portrayed as determined but they are no sleek robots. There are many mishaps and they are far from perfect. We even get the impression that they were a bit too hasty and that the whole project would have needed more planning. In Valkyrie we don’t really understand why it doesn’t work. Everything seemed so perfect.

What also worked far better here is the human and emotional dimension. These people are scared. They are determined but anxious as well and when they are caught, things do not go well. One of them isn’t even capable of shooting himself, he misses first, tries again, ends up badly wounded and has then to be shot by someone else while in Valkyrie he puts the gun to his head, shoots and is dead right away.

While far from perfect and not as carefully – and one would argue artificially -orchestrated as Valkyrie, Stauffenberg feels emotionally true and is very watchable. If you didn’t like Tom Cruise you might even prefer this smaller scale production.

Waltz With Bashir (2008) – A Guest Post by The War Movie Buff

I’m glad to have another guest post today. This time it is from one of my oldest blogging friends, Kevin aka The War Movie Buff. He started his war movie blog only a few months after I started mine and I was glad to find someone who doesn’t only share the interest and posts regularly and writes in a very detailed and passionate way but also someone who answers comments and likes a good discussion.

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In August, 2010, I went to see a movie called “Julie and Julia”. Little did I know that taking my wife to a chick flick to get brownie points would change my life. The plot of the Julie half of the movie involved a blogger cooking a different recipe a day and writing about it. That gave me the idea to start a blog where I would review the greatest war movies. I had recently encountered Military History magazine’s issue on the 100 Greatest War Movies so I used it as my guide. My plan was to review one movie per week starting with #100. I started as simple a blog as I could handle (being computer-challenged) and journeyed into uncharted territory not knowing what to expect. I truly did not expect to get much traffic and being a high school history teacher I am used to lack of recognition. However, my very first post resulted in a response from a blogger named “All About War Movies”. This person quickly became my mentor, colleague, and friend. In recognition of that, I have chosen to write this guest post on a movie I never would have seen without her influence. When I became a faithful follower of “All About War Movies”, I realized that there were some very good foreign war films that I should watch. Being an American, this was news to me. In my whole life of watching hundreds of films, I could recall having watched only one foreign film (“The Seven Samurai”). I quickly came to respect Caroline’s recommendations and anytime she mentioned a movie I had never heard of, I checked on it. I decided to expand my parameters to include categories beyond the 100 Greatest. One of those categories is what I decided to call “Should I Read It?” which refers to subtitled movies. The first foreign war film I blogged on was one of Caroline’s favorites – “Joyeux Noel”. I was hooked on foreign films instantly. I now even watch non-war, subtitled films. I am proudly less Americentric now.

I give this background because the movie I am going to write about is not only a foreign film, but the best war film I have seen since I started my blog. It reinforced my belief that modern war films can and should be superior to old school war movies, even the classics. Technology and experience are huge advantages for modern war movie makers. “Waltz With Bashir” is an Israeli film released in 2008. The movie blew me away because it hit several of my buttons. It is historically accurate, I learned about an event that I knew little about, it is realistic in its depiction of the military and combat, and it is striking in its cinematography.

Writer and director Ari Folman spent four years creating what he calls an “animated documentary”. If not the first of this type, it is still ground-breaking. It won numerous awards and was critically acclaimed. The film is autobiographical. Folman takes as his theme the effects of war on memory. The movie begins with a jaw-dropping three-dimensionally animated scene of a pack of dogs running through the streets to a man’s apartment building. The dogs represent a memory flashback for a friend of Ari. The friend tells Ari each dog represented the 26 dogs he sniped during the Lebanon War of 1982. This conversation causes Ari to confront the fact that he has holes in his memory of his experiences in Lebanon. That very night he has his first flashback which involves himself and some naked comrades coming ashore on a beach at the city of Beirut. Another friend theorizes that people sometimes fill in gaps in their memory with fiction. He encourages Ari to try to fill in those gaps with the truth. Don’t fear opening those doors, “memory takes us where we want to go”. He assures Ari he cannot get hurt by learning the truth.

Ari goes on a quest to talk to comrades he served with and other veterans of the invasion. Their individual stories are vignettes that powerfully depict the nature of modern war. Several universal truths about warfare and young soldiers shine through. The adrenalin-fueled fear in a firefight is followed by the overwhelming silence of death. Soldiers tend to fire their weapons at nothing and nowhere when traveling through enemy territory. Soldiers are clueless pawns of the brass and the pols. Surviving members of a unit suffer guilt feelings. Unlike some anti-war movies, “Waltz with Bashir” does not glamorize the appealing aspects of armed combat.

The movie and Ari’s quest builds to the infamous Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacre. Ari’s unit is sent into western Beirut after the assassination of the Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayal. The film takes its title from an incident in which a member of Ari’s unit waltzes with a machine gun in the middle of a Beirut street while under fire from snipers and RPGs and as Lebanese civilians spectate. Time seems to stand still as he twirls amidst the bullet casings and ricochets. The dance symbolizes Israel’s relationship with Bashir.

The film concludes with the Israeli Defensive Forces allowing vengeance-minded Christian Phalange militia to enter the Muslim camps. The individual Israeli soldiers exhibit cognitive dissonance as they are slow to grasp what is clearly taking place before their eyes, abetted by their lighting the night skies with flares. It takes three days for an Israeli general to order a stop to the killings. The movie makes it clear that the Israeli government (Defense Minister Sharon and Prime Minister Begin) was complicit in the massacre, but Folman is not on a crusade. He lets the audience connect the dots. The memory theme comes full circle as Ari realizes that he had filled in the black hole of his memory of being near the atrocity by imagining that he and his comrades were instead at a beach. The movie closes with real footage of the massacre victims as though to remind the audience that although animated, the story is true.

I love war movies because I love Military History. I have been attracted to war stories since I was a child because of the action, but also because war brings out all the emotions and character traits in human beings. I prefer war movies that have action and are true to human nature. They don’t have to be historically accurate, but I insist they not be ridiculous and unrealistic. When you have seen as many war films as I have, you also are impressed when the movie takes a different approach to telling a war story. “Waltz with Bashir” fits this description (as do “300” and “Oh! What a Lovely War”). Movies like these prove that although the war movie genre (starting with “Birth of a Nation”) is almost a century old, there are still new ways to tell a war story.

“Waltz” looks very different from every other war film I have seen. Folman uses a variety of animation. The movie is mostly a blend of cut-out and classic animation. It is influenced by graphic novels and has a scene reminiscent of Japanese animation. He includes some three-dimensional scenes, but used the technique sparingly and only for spectacular shots. His use of color varies depending on the mood of the scene. The war scenes tend to be monochromatic. The home front scenes are much more vibrant. (He makes the point that although he was fighting only twenty minutes away, at home the public was unaffected by the war and life went on as usual.) The shading and shadows are amazing. The look is mesmerizing. Blu-ray was made for movies like this.

The movie is true to human nature mainly because these are real people who Ari interviewed and built the story on. From my reading of men in combat, I have a good idea of how men behave under that stress. For those vast majority of people who do not want to read extensively in this difficult area, movies can serve the purpose of educating civilians about what their young warriors go through. This is important because these young men deserve to be understood. Civilians need second-hand memory. Undoubtedly, some Israelis were offended by what they saw in “Waltz”. The fact is that atrocities happen on both sides in every war. Good war movies like this show what really happens in war, but also provide the why.

As an American, I admit to being ignorant about most modern non-American wars. My blog experience and Caroline’s influence have opened up my eyes to several conflicts that I would have remained clueless about. I have watched movies on the Bosnian War (“No Man’s Land”, “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”), the First Chechan War (“Prisoner of the Mountain”), and the Lebanon War (“Beaufort”, “Lebanon”). They are all good movies that taught me something and encouraged me to research the war. My modus operandi when I read books is usually to read books that I can learn from. I am not as strict with movies, but it’s an added bonus when the movie is instructive.

In conclusion, we war movie lovers all have our reasons for loving this genre. But don’t forget it is a genre with many fascinating subgenres. Be willing to sample from them all, even the ones where you have to read. And try out the newest one – animated war documentary.

Thank you Caroline for giving me this opportunity to spout.