Valkyrie: The Underrated WWII Historical Drama

Valkyrie with Tom Cruise
Drama.

A trip back to 2008 here with the Bryan Singer directed, Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie. It’s an underrated historical drama about the 20th July, 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.

Valkyrie

It’s World War II and Wehrmacht colonel Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is battling in Tunisia.

He’s seriously injured in an air raid attack, losing an eye, a hand, and several fingers from his remaining one.

During his recuperation in Germany, General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) recruits him into the German Resistance.

Many are losing faith in Adolf Hitler’s sanity and ability to lead. It appears that Germany faces annihilation unless someone stops him.

A coup d’état is organised with the likes of General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally), and Erwin von Witzleben (David Schofield).

Aware that just blowing Hitler up won’t be enough, von Stauffenberg suggests Operation Valkyrie as a way to seize power in the aftermath of Hitler’s demise.

It’d deploy the reserve army due to a national crisis, with a makeshift government set in place once the detractors were in power.

He convinces General of Signal Corps Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) to cut all communications after the assassination attempt.

That step will ensure they have a good opportunity, amidst the chaos, to get into power.

After this von Stauffenberg, with his adjutant Werner von Haeften (Jamie Parker) who he’s mentoring, heads out to the Wolf’s Lair—Hitler’s secretive base in east Poland.

Using von Stauffenberg’s status as a colonel in the Wehrmacht, he’s able to get immediate access to Hitler during important military operation meetings.

Seemingly innocuous due to his injuries, at the base Major Ernst John von Freyend (Werner Daehn) is very helpful and polite in von Stauffenberg’s request to change due to a shaving cut (the Nazis were a stickler for military precision).

We always find this bit creepy, as Daehn’s performance is disarming. He’s cheerful, patient, and polite. He’s especially considerate of the colonel’s injuries. Yet he’s a far right Nazi.

Freyend leads the colonel to a private room with Haeften so he can change. Once inside the duo work as fast as possible to get two bombs rigged.

What happens here is accurate to real life events. Von Stauffenberg and Haeften had to prime two bombs, but Freyend (who survived the explosion and lived until 1980) interrupted them due to a phone call. This forced the detractors to abandon one.

This section is the highlight of Valkyrie. It’s an expertly crafted and tense build up of scenes.

The manic rush to prep the explosives, followed by von Stauffenberg heading into a meeting with Hitler (David Bamber) and standing next to a fully primed bomb waiting for his cue to leave! Then they flee and contemplate what’s about to happen.

Von Stauffenberg and Haeften must have had nerves of steel to do all of that.

Afterwards, the duo rush to Berlin—blagging their way past three security gates along the way to the airport.

After a three hour delay, von Stauffenberg is angry to find General Olbrich isn’t following the previous plan.

He phones him from an air base, where Olbrich confirms there’s no news of Hitler’s death.

Regardless, they push on ahead with the coup d’état and spread the news that the Führer died in the explosion.

What follows is a desperate battle to try and win the day. But we all know the outcome—we start the filming knowing the underdogs will fail.

All the conspirators are rounded up and shot in rather heartbreaking fashion. Very close to usurping a despot, but not close enough.

Valkyrie is quite unusual for a big Hollywood production in that respect. There’s no happy ending—we have a determined set of individuals who pulled off a daring mission. Yet failed due to a mixture of bad luck and the seeming impossible nature of it all (more on that further below).

We think Cruise does a fine job in the role—whether you like the guy or not, he’s a great actor with an impressive back catalogue.

And whilst Valkyrie isn’t his most challenging role, he’s able to show off his talent during scenes such as the assassination attempt and its aftermath. His expression of grim determination sticks with us.

As does his outburst after discovering Hitler is probably still alive—it’s unnerving, “I saw the explosion myself!” It hits home the desperation of the times.

Elsewhere we have Jamie Parker as the adjutant who’s mentored by von Stauffenberg. Parker is largely a stage actor, which is a shame as he’s subtle and terrific in the film.

Also of note is Bill Nighy, who doesn’t often play serious roles—he’s excellent here as the stern General Olbrich.

So, 11 years on and what can we make of Valkyrie? It’s an underrated gem, in our opinion.

Some critics and film buffs criticised it as plodding and dull, but it’s a political drama that works hard to stick true to real events (most of the time).

For what it is, we think it’s stirring entertainment, but also a fitting reminder of the desperation of wartime and lunatic leaders who promote demagogues.

Sometimes, we must challenge that through desperate steps. And WWII was one of the most desperate moments in human history—we can only view the assassination attempt as heroic.

Production

The screenplay was written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander.

They put together the script based off first-hand accounts, pictures of the time, newsreels, and books on the event. That included sifting through Gestapo and SS records.

Filming began in July of 2007 over in Berlin. The crew was able to film at real locations such as the former Reich Air Ministry Building. As well as von Stauffenberg’s brother’s house where the film’s lead character stayed.

A replica set of Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair was also built 50 miles outside of Berlin. That must have been eerie to set up.

Tom Cruise read the script and was drawn further into the project when he noticed the striking similarity he has with Claus von Stauffenberg.

Before the filming of his character’s execution scene, he insisted on a moment of silence for all the those involved in the plot.

Valkyrie proved to be a hit at the box office, despite its rather bleak nature. Off the $75 million budget it went on to make $200.3 million.

It’s an excellent production and one Hollywood should dabble more in. It reminds us somewhat if the TV mini-series Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Which is what we’re reviewing next week.

20th July 1944 Plot

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg with Adolf Hitler in 1944
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1984-079-02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. No changes were made to this image.

Here’s an eerie picture from Kętrzyn (Rastenburg), the Führer’s headquarters—Führerhauptquartiere, which got the name the Wolf’s Lair.

From left to right we have: Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg, Karl-Jesko von Puttkamer, an unknown individual, Adolf Hitler, and Wilhelm Keitel (picture dates to 15/7/1944).

36 at the time of the assassination attempt, von Stauffenberg’s various plans were curtailed over other occasions.

This was largely due to Hitler’s increasing paranoia. He regularly changed his schedule at the very last moment to throw off would be assassinators.

From von Stauffenberg’s side, he was aware there was a strong possibility of failure. But one of his main reasons to attempt the coup d’état regardless was so the world would know not all German citizens supported the Nazi regime.

The bomb went off at 12:42 pm on the 20th July, 1944. It resulted in the following devastation at a meeting in a summer barrack at the Wolf’s Lair.

Bomb explosion aftermath on assassination attempt with Hitler
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-025-10 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

For the first officers who rushed into the devastated room, they found the Führer slumped over a desk.

For a few moments on that day in July 1944, it would have seemed like he was indeed dead. In amongst the rubble, one person was killed and several followed the next day.

Hitler’s trousers were shredded in the explosion. The Nazis went on to use the below photo in propaganda to show the Führer was indestructible.

Hitler's trousers after 20th July plot
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-025-64 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

After von Stauffenberg left the barrack and saw the explosion, he was convinced no one could have survived.

But, crucially, Colonel Heinz Brandt (who died a day after the assassination attempt) moved the suitcase next to a thick table leg.

When the bomb went off, that bit of table ensured various individuals in the room were suitably protected from the main effects of the explosion.

One of them being Hitler, who suffered perforated eardrums. But he was otherwise okay.

Later that afternoon, he showed Benito Mussolini around the explosion area and held a meeting about future war plans.

The Führer went on a furious rampage after the incident, executing many he felt were involved in the plot.

7,000 people were arrested (or so the Gestapo claimed) and almost 5,000 excecuted. Many of whom had no connection with the assassination.

Meanwhile, Hitler was convinved his survival was a “divine moment in history”. By 30th April the following year, the war was lost and he committed suicide in his bunker.

But some of those involved in the plot did escape capture. One was Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin. He was the last survivor, dying in March 2013 at the age of 90.

2 comments

  1. I never saw this movie largely because it had Tom Cruise in it and I figured it would be little more than froth… maybe I should check it out. The real story was extraordinary. One wonders what might have happened had the plot worked and WW2 ended soon afterwards (as it likely would have, I suppose). My guess is that the Cold War would probably still have happened, given the tensions underlying the Allies, but who knows?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s worth a watch, I think, you may have issues with the historical accuracy in the second half of the film.

      The main thing for me was covering the remarkable effort they put in to wipe out Hitler. They’d planned out the post-assassination makeshift government meticulously. But that table leg got in the way.

      And, yes, agreed on the Cold War. But it’s strange how little moments like a table like can lead to enormous shifts in history.

      Liked by 1 person

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