A review of Valkyrie (produced and distributed by United Artists; directed by Bryan Singer; screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie) and Slumdog Millionaire (produced by Celador Films; directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; from Vikas Swarup’s novel; distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures)
In Valkyrie, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer tell the story of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the aristocratic German Catholic who led the conspiracy that almost assassinated Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. While considered a national hero in Germany, Stauffenberg is not nearly as well known in America. So strong is the propaganda coloring America’s understanding of what happened in Europe from 1933 to 1945 that many of our citizens tend to think of all Germans as Nazis. In the popular imagination, Germans are either the monocled, heel-clicking sadists on display in Casablanca or the buffoons of Hogan’s Heroes. It’s just this kind of historical caricaturing that Stauffenberg sacrificed his life to prevent. He agreed with his fellow conspirator, Henning von Tresckow, who said that they had to kill the Führer “to show the world that not all of us are like him; otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.” They failed, and thus many in our overeducated, underinformed land think Hitler and his circle were the German norm in the mid-20th century.
Singer has fashioned a strong, convincing portrayal of the events leading up to and immediately following the attempted assassination. Spurning the usual excesses of big-budget war films, he gives us an admirably restrained account that’s wholly convincing in every detail. Despite the foreshortening and simplification inescapable in a two-hour film, he never misleads the audience in any substantive way. At the film’s conclusion, I was left elevated the way one is after an effectively staged tragedy. I had witnessed the passion of a man of principle who had courageously chosen his fate in the full knowledge that he would as likely fail as succeed.
The film begins in Tunisia with Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) writing in his diary of his disgust with Hitler and the Nazis. “I’m a soldier, but in serving my country, I have betrayed my conscience.” Moments later, his brigade sustains an aerial attack during which he loses his right hand, two fingers of his left, an eye, and a good deal of his hearing. Sent back to Berlin, he makes contact with like-minded officers and joins the plot to assassinate Hitler and put the government under the leadership of Carl Goerdeler, a conservative Prussian statesman who shares their dedication to saving the German people and Europe from further destruction. But how will they accomplish this? Listening to a recording of Wagner’s Die Walküre one evening, Stauffenberg gets his inspiration. He will use Hitler’s own defensive emergency plan, code-named Walküre, to wrest the reigns of power from the Nazis. Hitler had taken precautions against possible coups by keeping the army reserves stationed in Berlin in constant readiness. Should he or his administration be attacked, the reserves were to lock down the seat of government and protect it at all costs. Stauffenberg plans to kill Hitler, announce the assassination was perpetrated by high-ranking members of Hitler’s bodyguard, the Schutzstaffel (the SS), and then invoke Walküre. The plan sounds convincing enough, but as one of the conspirators warns, “Just remember: Nothing ever goes according to plan.”
Once the operation is begun, the film accelerates toward its foregone conclusion. Although we know Stauffenberg will fail, Singer somehow manages to ratchet up the suspense to such a degree that the audience with whom I saw the movie were rooting for the conspirators to succeed.
Summoned to a high-level meeting at Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair), Hitler’s bunker in the Goerlitz forest east of Rastenburg, Stauffenberg arrives with his lieutenant and two bombs. Several things go awry, but the operation still has a chance. With astonishing sang-froid, Stauffenberg places one of his bombs near Hitler and leaves the room just before the explosion. He bluffs his way out of the compound and flies back to Berlin where he finds his allies paralyzed by uncertainty. The news from Wolfschanze has been sketchy. Not knowing whether Stauffenberg had succeeded, they have waited for his arrival. Had they kept their heads, they would have realized that it didn’t matter whether Hitler was dead or alive. The confusion following the attack had given them the opportunity to put Walküre into effect, round up the SS, and take over the government. After all, they had nothing to lose. Their complicity in the assassination—successful or not—would certainly have emerged. “If only,” we’re left pondering.
Some commentators have faulted the film for portraying Stauffenberg as a noble patriot driven by humanitarian concerns. They either claim or insinuate that he and the other conspirators had acted to secure their leadership in the Germany that would follow the war. Some have openly mocked the idea that Stauffenberg had any concern about the persecution of Jews or the mass killings of other unfortunates. They note that by 1944 the German army had been routed in the battle of Stalingrad, and it had become obvious that Germany would lose the war. They also quote an unflattering comment Stauffenberg made in a letter to his wife about the Jews and Slavs he encountered in Eastern Europe. How, they ask, could a person of Stauffenberg’s background be anything other than a self-serving antisemite? Well, here’s how. As documented by many serious historians, including Peter Hoffman, Stauffenberg concluded in 1942 that Hitler had to be overthrown. This was well before Stalingrad and Normandy had presaged Germany’s inevitable defeat. Second, while he may not have held Slavs and Eastern European Jews in the highest regard, Stauffenberg never gave any sign of subscribing to the Nazi race madness. Several of his closest friends were German Jews. Furthermore, his brother Alexander had married a woman of Jewish descent whose family had suffered because of the Nazi proscriptions. While it’s true that, like many aristocrats, Stauffenberg subscribed to a theory of class distinctions and suffered from an advanced case of noblesse oblige (now anathema in the West), he also subscribed to a politics that called for honoring a natural aristocracy based on demonstrable merit. And, finally, there’s this. At his end, he looked the members of his firing squad in their eyes and shouted “Long live holy Germany!” as they pulled their triggers. Valor this staunch is too scarce not to be prized.
Detractors have also ridiculed Tom Cruise’s performance. Cruise has garnered enemies far and wide. He jumped on Oprah’s couch; he became a Scientologist; he impregnated Katie Holmes. Some claim he’s a closeted homosexual. And on and on. Let’s leave it at this: Actors generally are childish; it’s nearly a career qualification. After all, they pretend for a living. The only thing we should expect of them is that their pretending convince us of the truth of their characterizations. At this Cruise has usually done reasonably well—and in Valkyrie, exceptionally well. Here he conveys the quiet authority of a good man who recognizes that his social position requires that he live up to a code of honor that transcends himself. This is nowhere more evident than in the way Cruise has his character respond to those in inferior positions. He’s always courteous, even when they exasperate him. When making his escape from Wolf’s Lair, he’s stopped by a guard. Without raising his voice, he appeals to the man’s sense of honor to convince him to let him and his lieutenant through the gate. Later, once the coup has failed and his Berlin office staff are walking out on him, an adoring secretary looks up at him with tears in her eyes. She’s not going to leave. He looks at her gently and, in the quietest voice imaginable, implores her to leave. It’s a wonderfully tender moment in a film otherwise characterized by masculine brusqueness.
As for the other performances, Singer probably didn’t have to work very hard. Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, and Terence Stamp are all superlative as usual. And the lesser roles are filled out by equally competent actors. Even Eddie Izzard is convincing as a reluctant conspirator.
Of all 2008’s films, Valkyrie is one of the most satisfying, by reason of its sincere ambition and realized artistry. Singer, the Jewish kid from Jersey who made the Man of Steel a comic-book savior in Superman Returns, has arrived on the international stage with a fully grown-up film about a genuinely human savior.
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is anything but grown up. It’s a kid’s kaleidoscope of exploding colors celebrating the irrepressible energy of its underclass characters, desperate youths who find themselves caught up in a wildly monstrous and thoroughly romantic fairy tale. Based on the popular Indian novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup, this British-made film concerns the experiences of three throwaway orphans: two brothers and Latika, the girl they meet during their travels. Just barely surviving against a background of nearly unimaginable poverty, they become aimless tricksters and petty criminals living hand to mouth. But when the brothers become separated from Latika, the younger, Jamal, discovers his life’s mission. He’s fallen in love with Latika, and he’s determined to find her again. After years of searching, he discovers she’s living as a reluctantly kept woman in Mumbai. There’s only one thing to do. He gets himself onto the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and begins to pile up winnings. For such impertinence, he’s arrested and tortured to confess his scam. But it isn’t a scam. This uneducated kid doesn’t know that Gandhi appears on the 1,000-rupee note, but when asked who’s on the American hundred-dollar bill, he confidently answers “Benjamin Franklin.” Why? An American tourist aghast at his poverty once gave him one.
As Jamal explains how he knew the answers, the film flashes back to each revelatory incident in his life. In so doing, the narrative becomes a quest montage, with Jamal the courtly hero undergoing a series of ordeals to win his lady love.
Out of this unlikely material, Boyle has constructed an astonishingly joyful film, one part sociological horror, one part romance, and the third, delirious comedy. How to explain this? I could bore with discussions of his montage, camera angles, and palette. But, finally, there’s only one explanation: cinematic genius.
By the way, I noticed this morning an advertisement for a wholly Indian-made action film opening in American multiplexes. For better or for worse, the subcontinent has arrived, and its billions want in on our millions. Boyle is just ahead of the curve.
This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.