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.

Advertisements

Eichmann (2007)

I was looking forward to watch the British Hungarian co-production Eichmann starring one of my favourite German actors Thomas Kretschmann. If I tell you it was entertaining this should ring a bell right away. A movie based on Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation should not be entertaining. No, it really shouldn’t. If it is, something went wrong. And that’s what happened. I should have known this wouldn’t be a good movie because most reviews are far from appreciative but I was curious and wanted to find out for myself.

The core question, which isn’t really explored as well as I would have wished, is whether someone who follows an order and gives orders, like Eichmann did, is as guilty as those who executed the orders or those who decided they should be given. It’s the same question that lies at the heart of plays like Macbeth. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to kill, does that make her less guilty than her husband who did the killing?

Eichmann was one of the highest Nazi functionaries. He had the position of Transportation Administrator of the so-called Final Solution. In this function he was in charge of all the trains that  brought Jews to the death camps in occupied Poland. It is said that he is responsible for the execution of 6.000.000 people. After the war he could escape to Argentina. He was one of a few Nazi criminals not to be sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials because he was in hiding. The State of Israel was established in 1948. Its official intelligence agency, Mossad, was formed one year later. One of Mossad’s principal assigned tasks was to hunt down accused Nazi war criminals. Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960 and brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1961. He was executed in 1962.

The movie however isn’t very explicit on all of this but focusses purely on the interrogation. Avner Less, a young Israeli police officer whose father had been on one of the trains sent to Auschwitz by Adolf Eichmann, was the one who interrogated Eichmann. The movie is told from Avner’s point of view. It shows the problems this interrogation brings to his family and to himself, the reaction of the public, how the media hunt him.

The interrogation as such had the aim to make Eichmann confess. Most of the interrogation we see consists of Avner asking and Eichmann denying. Whenever Eichmann lies, the movie shows what really happened in a flashback and that’s where the movie gets entertaining but absurd as we see Eichmann depicted like a gigolo with various lovers. Really weird.

On the other hand, while showing a shallow and silly Eichmann in the flashbacks, the way the people in Israel talk about him in the movie makes it sound as if they thought he was the sole responsible for the murders of so many people. Both are gross exaggerations and make this a really dubious movie.

I don’t understand why this incredible story could not have been done any better. It certainly would have deserved to be told well.

I have bought Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil a while back. I would have done better reading that instead.

One word about the actor. Many reviewers criticized Kretschmann for his wooden acting. I saw documentaries of the trial and think the man Eichmann was very wooden. In any case, it’s not the actor’s fault this isn’t a good movie. I’d say he was actually quite good.

Still, a movie like Eichmann has some value as it may generate an interest in people to find out more about this sinister character and it may trigger conversations about guilt and responsibility. But it’s not a good movie.

Polanski’s The Pianist (2002)

Of all the Holocaust movies I have seen so far The Pianist is my favourite. It doesn’t concentrate on life in the camps but, based on a true account, it depicts the survival story of a famous Polish Jewish pianist and focuses on life in the Warsaw ghetto.

The movie begins before the Jews of Warsaw are sent to the ghetto. The situation for them gets worse daily. They are forbidden to enter certain restaurants, to sit on park benches, to keep their money or their shops. They receive far less food than the other Poles. They already struggle hard before they are all compressed into a confined area in the Warsaw ghetto. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) who was a successful musician before the war, sees himself degraded, like so many others. Together with his parents, his brother and sisters they move from their nice roomy apartment into an old shabby one-bedroom place in the ghetto. To make a living they sell their books or smuggle stuff. They refuse to join the Polish police even though one of their friends has joined them and would help them to be accepted as well. Both brothers are of high moral integrity and nothing would make them betray their convictions.

When the day arrives and the people of the ghetto are sent to Treblinka, Wladyslaw escapes and remains on his own in the empty ghetto. If it wasn’t for the help of some courageous Poles he would be dead within a week or two. Either because they would have caught him or because he would have starved.

What follows until the end of the war is an unspeakable ordeal. He has to change his hiding place often, he watches the uprising from a window on the German side and when Warsaw is finally bombed he goes on living in the ruins until the day he is found by a German officer. This part is the best in the movie. It balances the image of the evil German. The officer Wladyslaw meets (played by Thomas Kretschmann) is not only fond of music but war-weary to the extreme. He clearly fought for a cause he didn’t believe in.

Another tragic element in this movie is how hope is crushed. When the Allies declare war on Germany, the Poles and Polish Jews are happy and think that the worst is over when in fact the worst was still to come.

I couldn’t think of a better choice for the pianist than Adrien Brody. He is excellent in this movie. If you haven’t seen The Pianist, I’d say it is high time.

Which Holocaust movies do you like?

U-571 (2000) US Sub on a Secret Mission

If you are a fan of the war movie  sub-genre U-Boot and submarine movies then you might consider watching U-571. It’s not great, it’s not innovative, it’s corny at times but it’s decent and gripping enough – despite an anti-climax towards the end – and offers two hours of entertainment. The cast is well-chosen (Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Thomas Kretschmann, Jon Bon Jovi), the story is somewhat stretched in its plausibility but not totally far-fetched either.

The American submarine U-571 is sent on a secret mission to capture the Enigma machine on a German submarine. They will achieve this by diguising the boat and the crew as German.

While the initial part of the mission works out – they get on the boat – , they are not able to return to their own sub and have to stay on the German boat that has been damaged badly before. There are not many survivors of the German crew apart from the character played by Thomas Kretschmann. Kretschmann is one of those actors who will always be casted in a newer war movie in which there is need for a cool-looking, blond German. He is the prototypical Aryan-looking German soldier, so to speak. I’m generally very fond of him but this isn’t his best role.

Of course all kinds of other submarines will start to chase the U-571 while the boat gets more and more damaged. All the cliché elements of the subgenre are present, waiting for being hit, diving too deep, water leaking in.

Now the truth is that there were far more British missions of this kind during WWII than American ones and the episode shown in the movie is purely fictional. Fact is that Germany sunk far over 1000 Allied ships in 1941 and almost achieved a total blockade of Great Britain. The same year a British crew managed to board a German U-Boot and captured the so-called Enigma machine. The Enigma machine (more of it can be seen in the movie Enigma) was a machine that encrypted messages between the German U-Boots and their high command. Capturing the machine led to a significant breakthrough in decoding messages. But all this is history and little of it can be seen in this movie.

All in all this is a movie for fans of the subgenre and of some of the actors and is decidely more of an action than a war movie.

Stalingrad (1993) The German Movie That is One of the Best War Movies Ever

Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad is one of the most powerful war movies I have ever seen. It bears testimony to Germany’s outstanding filmmaking capacities. It is also one of the rare that I have watched at least three times and every time I discovered something new. That’s why it is difficult to write a decent review and not one that is so long that you jump to the next post without even finishing the introduction.

Stalingrad focuses closely on five characters, four of which have been together since they fought at El Alamein.  We first see them on leave in Italy  from where they board a train to the Eastern Front. They don’t really have a clue where they are going or what for. They know the Führer says it is crucial and they have to trust him on that but first voices can be heard that doubt the decision-making of their command. During their train trip they meet their new Lieutenant, Witzlan (Thomas Kretschmann), for the first time. He isn’t battle hardened like the others are, in fact he has never fought at all and there is immediately a lot of friction.

When they get off the train in Stalingrad they face total chaos. There are heavily wounded soldiers everywhere, fighting is extremely heavy and they are in the midst of it all right away. The German officers in Stalingrad are mostly cruel Nazis, the treatment of Russian prisoners is harrowing. Witzlan is, as the privates discover now, a very humane person. He will not tolerate abuse and cruelty and comes into conflict with superiors on that subject. He may be inexperienced but he has a great character and his decision making isn’t all that bad, as we soon see.  As a matter of fact his subordinates learn to respect him a lot. One of the majors however is one of the most obnoxious characters of war movie history, a real jerk.

Stalingrad consists more or less of seven very distinct parts, the first one is the leave in Italy, followed by a heavy infantry combat one, then a sequence in which they are doing forced labour, next is the so-called “tank episode”, then they escape, meet again later with a part of their original group and finally try again to escape, out of Russia and back to Germany.

Because Stalingrad focuses practically only on five people it is a very intimate and emotional movie You have the feeling to know these people, you care for them, they are really humans with all their strengths and flaws. They are no heroes, they are normal people caught in what was one of the biggest tragedies of WWII, one of the battles that cost the most lives.

And there is the setting and seasonal implications. Russia in winter is one of the coldest places on earth. This really is a winter movie. Snow, ice, freezing and the total hopelessness of the people involved makes it unforgettable. Most of those who survived the battles froze to death later.

I have often wondered, if I had to choose, which climate I would choose. Fighting in the desert, in the jungle or in the icy cold planes of Russia? All three settings bear their own horrors as did the war soaked trenches of France and Belgium. My father fought in the desert, where you fight exhaustion, thirst, Fata Morgana and hallucinations from the heat and have to endure long walks through arid barren country where you can’t hide and are an easy target.

From my own personal point of view, I tink that icy Russia would be the worst. Stalingrad is for me the worst battle that ever took place. The battle and its aftermath are horrible.

I haven’t seen the Finnish movie Talvisota aka The Winter War yet, this might be similar, also a winter movie, but apart from that I think the extreme that is depicted in Stalingrad is unique. No other war movie achieves to convey such a powerful anti-war statement.

It think it safe to say that it is not only one of my Top 10 but it is also generally acknowledged as one of the best ever.  It manages to combine very intimate portraits of five soldiers, intense infantry combat, the depiction of a grueling climate and one of the biggest miscalculations of Hitler. 5/5 is an absolute understatement.