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Valkyrie (2008)

Director: Bryan Singer

Time: 120 minutes. Color.

The Final Solution, Aryan superiority, the two-front war—man, the Third Reich got just about everything wrong, didn’t it? As Valkyrie chronicles with chilly, inconsequential efficiency, the Reich couldn’t even conspire against itself without royally screwing it up.

Who knows how history would have been altered on July 20, 1944, if Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), the physically challenged yet morally empowered Nazi war hero, had left his booby-trapped briefcase in a place better suited to murder its intended target, Adolf Hitler? Would there have been a Berlin wall? Or, for that matter, a cold war? Intriguing questions, but they barely linger at the periphery of Bryan Singer’s thriller, which concerns itself less with the motives of the last great putsch against Der Führer and more with the cunning, intricate machinations deployed by Stauffenberg to mobilize a military coup for what would at least have been (the movie, mostly ahistorically, speculates) a German republic more amenable to negotiation with the Allies.

Going in, you wonder why Cruise would risk the good will he’s generated over more than two decades as a movie star to play a leading role in a Nazi uniform, no matter what his character’s attitude towards Hitler. But watching Stauffenberg consolidate and manipulate the varied elements of the assassination coup, you realize how Cruise, a paradigm of Hollywood control freaks, would be drawn to this stoic icon, whose real-life dashing good looks and magnetic intensity sustain his heroic stature in today’s Germany. That Stauffenberg’s failure was at least partly the fault of himself and his fellow plotters—thanks to their dithering over elaborate plans and tangled notions of loyalty to their Reich—is, for obvious reasons, left unexamined.

More’s the pity, then, that Cruise’s performance doesn’t disclose very much passion; the kind of passion, in any case, that would have pressed Stauffenberg to be, as he tells his aide, “involved in high treason with all means available to me.” Cruise is always more interesting onscreen when he lets his controlled persona go wild. But the movie is wound too tight for anyone, even Hitler (played here by David Bamber as a stooped, rasping serpent), to come unglued.

With the elite of British acting talent at its disposal (Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, and a barely recognizable Eddie Izzard), Valkyrie gives off strong emanations of vintage 1950s Ealing Studios thrillers, only grayer and icier than one remembers. The horrific excesses of the Nazi regime are referenced throughout with requisite disapproval.

That makes it all the more disorienting to see breathtaking visuals of swastikas and Nazi banners that come within spitting distance of Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious credulity. It may be worth noting here that Singer sealed his reputation with epics about costumed superheroes (X-Men, Superman Returns) and, as a result, may find it hard to resist the primal allure of a mighty insignia framed by an aggressive scarlet field. So even though the Nazis got nothing right, there’s one thing you have to admit, however much you hate yourself for it: those SS uniforms were pretty cool.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here