Friday, December 26, 2008

A Tour of Valhalla

I was reading a post a few days ago about people scuba diving in the cold mountain lakes of Austria, and specifically about the search by tourists for Nazi artifacts which were often found beautifully preserved in the muck at the bottom of some of these lakes. As certain of these places became known to divers, a cottage tourism industry was developing which authorities were eager to squelch. The writer talked about the community-wide dread with which these developments were being viewed: buses full of camera-snapping tourists capturing the thrilling discovery of more Nazi artifacts was just not what the idyllic little hamlets envisioned for their tourism plans; it reinforced a connection to a past which most locals wished would just go away.

I've only been once, briefly, to Germany, and it was a thousand years ago before I had any interest in history. When I was there I did not see anything historic, just a few quaint villages and a tourist spot or two. Later for a period I developed an intense interest in the Second World War, particularly Hitler's Germany and the fate of Europe. The question of how a country or a people moves on after something like the Third Reich is inevitable and captivating to me. To my mind, the rise and fall of Hitler is THE event of the 20th Century (if I had to pick one thing).

Bryan Singer's Valkyrie tells the story of the most nearly-successful of several indigenous plots to assassinate Hitler. Led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a group of senior officers and staff undertook to develop an intricate plan to step in and take control of the German government in the sudden vacuum left by Hitler's death--a death which Stauffenberg would personally undertake. The name Walküre, apart from being the name of a Wagner opera beloved by Hitler, was also the name of a secret Nazi contingency plan to use a reserve army to seize control of state functions in the wake of a war-related breakdown of government. Stauffenberg's plan was to kill Hitler with a suitcase bomb at a staff meeting and then utilize the legal framework of the Walküre plan to ensure that many people and departments--people not aware of the assassination plot--would follow the new government, rather than any of Hitler's hand-appointed successors. Like so many aspects of this story, this one is made even more fascinating for being true.

One of the great questions here--the question on everybody's mind ever since, the question the quaint Austrian villages so wish would go away--is how one of the greatest of Western cultures could descend en masse into the murderous madness so amply demonstrated (and carefully documented) by the Nazi government. And everything, it seems, is a question of degrees. While Hitler shrewdly demanded an oath of loyalty to himself personally from every member of every branch of the military, the Nazis were not able to win everyone's mind, despite an ingenious and comprehensive propaganda campaign designed to do exactly that. They could, with an extreme militarization of society, easily control the actions and behaviors of the people at large; but they had more trouble controlling the thoughts and feelings of those people. The question of degree comes from all of the officers of the various military branches, people who were at the time acting in an official capacity implementing Hitler's war plan. Perhaps every senior officer had their own ideas of how the war should have been waged, and many doubtless had their own thoughts about Hitler's grand vision for Germany. But people were carefully hand picked for promotion, and few made it to senior posts without demonstrating the right ideological bent. At the same time, these were also highly intelligent and capable people, and naturally some would recoil at the looming destruction of their beloved country. Even some of his most fervent supporters came to see Hitler as an evil, destructive force. Knowing Nazi culture, knowing that even whispering a discontent about Hitler was grounds for a death sentence--a sobering fact brutally demonstrated again and again--the rise of a plot to murder Hitler, a plot with powerful and important people in it, and one carefully planned and finely detailed, is a real accomplishment.

So there is a grim tug of war here: there were many in Germany--too little, too late, perhaps, but still--who disagreed with so much of what Hitler stood for, and their resistance is a beacon in the very darkest of times. But I can also imagine a frustration that the sins of the Third Reich refuse stubbornly to be scrubbed away. God, another Nazi movie?!

For my part, I am absolutely taken with the period and the story. The natty uniforms and the brilliant use of standards and symbols and pomp and circumstance, the unrelenting propaganda, the mass rallies theatrically staged, the irrepressible German quest for technical perfection; it's all magnetic, and made the more mesmerizing for its underpinning of brutality and malevolence. So I hardly think one could pick a more momentous story than this one, a small but significant sub-subplot of one of human history's darkest moments, a story of great courage and suspense.

And from these raw materials director Bryan Singer has given us a brilliant film for history buffs and adventure film fans alike, a treat for anyone who likes a cracking good story. His fantastic attention to detail whisks us right back to 1944 Germany. The film is perfectly paced, showing both the quiet contemplation of the men who were putting their lives on the line for their principles and also the acrimonious planning meetings with the inevitable clash of egos and the near-mayhem that followed the bombing of Hitler and the attempted takeover of the organs of state.

Singer is teamed up again here with his writing partner from 1994's brilliant The Usual Suspects (one of my top 20), Christopher McQuarrie (this time also joined by Nathan Alexander), giving a terse and tightly-focused script. Singer has also again employed cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, with whom he has worked on several films. While the film feels authentically of the period, Singer and Sigel accomplish this differently than Steven Soderberg's The Good German (2006), which sought to duplicate the look and feel of period newsreel footage with the use of period monochrome camera equipment. Valkyrie achieves its authenticity more conventionally, with sets and props and costumes--with attention to detail. (I'm fascinated at this question of whether the audience gains more by telling a story by carefully antiquing it to match the audience's limited information, or by bringing that antique story into a more modern idiom. Does it vary from story to story or audience to audience? Or is there no single answer?)

The last question for this movie is one of casting, a topic of which there has been much discussion. Singer has assembled an impressive cast: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, even, unexpectedly, Eddie Izzard (who acquits himself quite ably). The one question mark seems to be... the star of the film, Tom Cruise. Cruise seems to be a love-him-or-hate-him kind of actor, and he certainly has found himself in the deep end of the sanity pool lately with his voodoo chants and tabloid antics. But he has made some admirable films, and he has a certain facility, so I don't think he is an absurd choice. But at the very least he represents a serious chink in Singer's carefully-constructed illusion. As the lone American in a sea of British actors, his voice is pointedly different from that of every other person on screen. Some have found this jarring, even declaring that it ruins the movie for them. I didn't find his voice / accent nearly that intrusive, but it took a few minutes to settle into it. (If one wants to get all fussy about it, why are Brits OK? And is it OK to have Americans--or Brits--using a German accent? Why not use German actors and subtitles?) It's a fair question as to whether they shouldn't have found a Brit for the role--or alternatively used an all-American cast. And it's a fair question as to whether Cruise has enough star power left to pull folks into the theater where, say, Ewan McGregor would not (that is, after all, the primary reason to cast Cruise in the first place, no?). A couple in the party that attended the movie with me felt that Cruise simply didn't have the gravitas for the role, that he wasn't believable as a Colonel in the Nazi army--he still seems a mite too youthful. And I've read several reviews of his wooden and outclassed acting, but I think these criticisms are wide of the mark. I think he found his character in his own way, and it seemed a fine performance to me, even if he would not have been my first choice for the role. Personally, I don't at all feel that Cruise ruined the movie; but I think Singer could have made a slightly better movie without him.

But the story is much bigger than just this question, and Singer has done a wonderful job placing the drama before us. I was disconcerted at how few women are in the picture--as, perhaps, there were few women in key roles in the assassination plot. It's an awfully masculine movie. That's my caveat.

Grade: A- / B+


Dzesika said...

Much appreciated ... had been wondering about this one!
Hope your holidays have been merry and you haven't had to do too much snowblowing ...

wunelle said...

And the same to you! I think you might have got about as much snow as we did (Appleton has now logged a record snowfall for December).

shrimplate said...

Back in the days of book-of-the-month clubs, my mother got hooked on WWII history. The bios of Hitler by Toland and Waite, the Shirer book, and many others made for gruesome dinner-time conversation, much to my father's dismay; he wasn't much of a book-reader.

Agreed, Nazi Germnay is the historical nadir of the 20th century. Fascinating.

I think I have a passing familiarity with the plot. The suitcase bomb was ever so slightly out of proper position, no? and if were not for a table-leg or some such thing, Hitler would have been killed?

I hope to see the film soon. While I've heard all the complaints about Cruise, I think that at his own level he is quite good. I am sure he does not lie awake at night wishing he was Robert Duvall.

wunelle said...

Your memory is exactly right. The briefcase containing the bomb was moved by another person at the meeting to the "wrong" side of a heavy oak table leg. That little shred of protection afforded was the difference.

CyberKitten said...

Very interesting. I've been put off this film because of Cruise - maybe I need to start considering it again. Thanks for the food for thought.

Hope you had a good Christmas and have a great 2009.

Liz (the Blogista) said...

Great info - we're WWII buffs and do appreciate most aspects of our German heritage. We saw The History Channel's two hour ad - um, I mean program - the other evening on the actual events. Surprised that the film's writers and producers looked so young (OK, let's be honest - they are probably our age), since we often think this history is doomed to be forgotten.

wunelle said...

There is so much good coverage of this period of history, let's hope it doesn't fade into oblivion.

I find I'm drawn to photography from the period. Those pictures just stop me in my tracks.

Dzesika said...

So I went to see this today ... enjoyed it much more than I thought I would! And yes, it took a good twenty minutes to get over Tom Cruise's totally out-of-place American accent ... and then it was remarkably okay. Go figure.

I'm appreciative in general of un-war war movies - those that tell a story well without relying on too many dead people lying around. This one did admirably.

Foilwoman said...

I'm one of the "I hate Tom Cruise" club, so this movie will be tough for me (although I love Terence Stamp, so maybe that will win me over. I only liked Cruise in Magnolia, where he played a crazy, self-delusional, but charismatic cult-leader much like his cult-following self, but his performance really was great in that film.