Bryan Singer’s ‘Valkyrie’ (2008)

31Mar09

OK, so I stand corrected. Tom Cruise does not play a Nazi in this film. He is a soldier in the German army. My bad.

When watching Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, which details the last assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, I was reminded of another one of Singer’s films The Usual Suspects. Both films feature an ensemble cast of primarily men and involve the planning and execution of a complicated, nefarious plot. (Christopher McQuarrie, one of Valkyrie‘s screenwriters, also penned The Usual Suspects so the similarity of subject matter may not be coincidental.) Even John Ottman’s music has touches reminiscent of his score for Singer’s 1995 breakthrough film.

While Valkyrie doesn’t have a twist ending like The Usual Suspects, it falls short of success for another reason. Where The Usual Suspects has seven or eight clearly defined principle characters, Valkyrie only has a few vaguely drawn ones. These characters are important for the parts they play in the assassination attempt and little more. 'Valkyrie' posterEven Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg feels underdeveloped. I wish that I understood better what these men objected to specifically about Hitler’s Germany. The concentration camps? The nationalism? The eugenics? The military takeover of neighboring countries? The losing war with the Allies? It may sound ridiculous, but I’m really curious what finally pushed these men to attempt assassination and a coup. Without knowing that motivation, the characters seem a bit hollow. (Stauffenberg’s motives may have been articulated at the very beginning of the film, and I didn’t hear them. The sound mix wasn’t very good at the showing I attended.)

Cruise’s presence also weakened the film a bit for me because I can’t see Tom Cruise as anyone but Tom Cruise. He doesn’t disappear into roles, which is problematic in particular for period and historical films. Cruise isn’t bad here by any means, he’s just Tom Cruise. But he does try something different from the brash cockiness he usually brings to roles. He plays Stauffenberg as a very soft-spoken man, never raising his voice unnecessarily, which creates Stauffenberg as a man who finds strength in his convictions rather than physically imposing power on others. And Cruise does bear a good resemblance to the real Stauffenberg.

Even though the audience knows the ending, Singer does an excellent job creating dramatic tension. However, I wish that the scene in which Fromm calls the Wolf’s Lair and someone confirms that Hitler is alive had not been included. I think it would have made the moment when Hitler speaks to Major Remer on the phone even more powerful.

Singer does something I really like in regards to the language of the film. Valkyrie is about Germany and historical German figures who spoke German, but the screenplay is written in English for an English-speaking audience. Most of the time, such films play out completely in English without comment to the language disconnect, but Singer does something different. The film begins with the voices of German soldiers reciting an oath to Hitler’s Germany, translated on screen into English over a Nazi flag. The next scene shows Stauffenberg stationed in Africa writing in his journal with a voiceover dictating what he writes. The voiceover begins in German, but after a few sentences the German begins to fade out and a voiceover dictating the same journal entry in English replaces it. For the rest of the film only the dialogue is in English — all written material is in German and never translated through subtitles.

I also really like how Singer filmed the character of Hitler, keeping him at the edge of the frame and never really filming him straight-on. He has little dialogue and only says two lines with his face completely visible on screen. This treatment is effective because it downplays an almost mythic historical figure whose presence could easily overpower the film. Singer also doesn’t try to make a mustache twirling villain out of him, letting Hitler’s reputation precede him, I suppose. Instead, Singer concentrates on keeping these resistance fighters at the core of the story.

Valkyrie is a Nazi movie that doesn’t really try to make a point about the Nazis. Instead, it focuses on telling one particular story related to the Nazi regime, which is actually a fairly refreshing approach to such material. And I always love watching Bryan Singer’s work. (Well, I haven’t seen Apt Pupil. I may not love watching that one.) I think his films are quietly stylish, and he has a knack for balancing the intimate with the grandiose. Though the characters aren’t as clearly drawn as I would like, Valkyrie is a well-made heist film that details an historical event of which many people probably have little knowledge.

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