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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

“Valkyrie” is a wonderful monument to a great man

You could not endure the shame; you resisted; you gave the great, eternally vital sign of

change, sacrificing your glowing lives for freedom, justice, and honor.”

(“Freiheit , Recht und Ehre”)

Translation of the plaque in the center of the courtyard at the Memorial to German Resistance in Berlin;,

where a firing squad murdered four army officers for their role in the most famous plot to kill Hitler on July

20, 1944.

I saw “Valkyrie” today. Not only was it a NON-FLOP it was actually one of the best WWII era films I have seen in years. “Valkyrie” portrays (accurately) a German Resistance movement as very serious affair and not merely a last minute disorganized effort by a few. The film documents in total three very serious attempts to kill Hitler in 1943 and 1944 including the July 20 bombing. This was nothing new for me because I have made a study of Nazi Germany and the 20 July plot but for most people –even those who have heard of the assassination attempt- there is a depth of detail which many will find informative and surprising. “Valkyrie” has first class performances by an ensemble cast of top rate British and European actors. “Valkyrie” captures to a “t” the desperation a well as the moral bankruptcy and mental exhaustion of a failing Nazi Germany.

Some reviewers complain that the Hitler portrayed here is not ‘exciting’ or charismatic enough. “Downfall” got a big press and was a good film but I did not like the focus on a more “human” Hitler which almost –it seemed to me- to be sympathetic to him. “Valkyrie”, by contrast, showed the Nazi leaders to be cowardly, mean, corrupt, mediocre and out of touch. Mussolini was not allowed a bit part either; Hitler meets with him off screen and his lieutenants dismiss the Duce as a “cheap Dago”. So much for Axis unity! Many World War Two films emphasize Nazi efficiency and therefore glorify, inadvertently, Nazi Germany as an effective and efficient state. “Valkyrie” did not do this.

But many reviewers seem to forget that by 1943-1944 Hitler was rarely seen in public and lived a life of seclusion and was gradually descending into what could be described as a complete breakdown. The director purposely did not dwell on Hitler at all. I found this refreshing. Not much “Heil Hitler” in this movie; “High” Hitler is more like it. The Hitler of this film is not attractive or charismatic in the least but is depicted as a pathetic and perhaps doped up Fuehrer who is too lazy and incompetent to read thoroughly the orders he was signing. This is a suicidal Hitler who had not too long to live regardless of the outcome of the war. I think the film completely demythologizes Hitler and for that I say: Bravo!.

The only thing lacking in “Valkyrie” was a real star turn by Tom Cruise. Mr. Cruise, nonetheless, was perfectly competent but I can imagine this role being done by Alec Guinness for example or James Mason or Jack Hawkins. I just know THEY would have made Mr. Cruise’s good lines really memorable. But I give Mr. Cruise credit; he does a very workmanlike job. He did not overact or attempt to make himself look physically taller or more glamorous in any way but allowed himself to be shown as scarred and visibly disabled.

The script was first rate and great care was put into this film to create an air of authenticity and historical accuracy. “Valkyrie” shows how many ordinary Germans were just cogs in huge totalitarian machine and were almost quite literally what the Cubans used to call ‘hombres de siete nalgas” that is to say people who were fence sitters who wanted to survive regardless of who came out on top. It shows that some members of the plot had to be virtually blackmailed into working with the plotters and that many conspirators had cold feet at various times. As it became clear the assassination attempt had failed people began to drift away and abandon the plotters to their fate. This is historically accurate and did show that some people had some courage but most lacked the overwhelming fortitude needed to stand up the feared Gestapo and murderous SS to the very end. Except perhaps one: Stauffenberg himself.

If I had been involved in the film, personally, I might have given more emphasis to the devout Catholicism of Stauffenberg and his family. But that would reflect perhaps my own personal prejudice and may not have made a better or more believable film. The director preferred (no doubt for commercial reasons) to imply Stauffenberg’s Catholic faith via his loving wife and family, using Christian motifs and shooting a scene in a bombed out Cathedral. I strongly object to the reviews that say that the film downplayed Stauffenberg’s Catholicism or that it showed the German officers or policemen or the Germany Army in a romanticized light. Let us remember that many people who cooperated with the plot paid for it with their lives. All in all, I think the film did a believable job at characterizing Stauffenberg’s moral repugnance for the Nazi Regime and its crimes.

Stauffenberg was a hero and a very , very brave man and the film did him honor. Of course, tragically, he failed and Hitler lived nine months more. If the plot HAD SUCCEEDED, however, much of Europe may have been spared- not to mention the 80,000 Americans killed in the Battle of the Bulge? But we must pause and think about it. How many civilians, Jews and POW’s would have been saved IF the plot had succeeded? The number might have been in the millions. I have a Waffen SS helmet that my uncle personally liberated in January 1945 from a bombed out postal warehouse (he made me promise never to wear it or display it). It had been in a box stamped DIED FOR GREATER GERMANY. My uncle served in the 10th Armored Division in the Bastogne pocket and was awarded a Bronze Star V with Valor. He personally attested to the ferocious killing power of the Germany Army right up to the end of the war. He also helped liberate death camps and slave labor camps. Trying to kill Hitler and make a separate peace with the West was not a small thing it was a very big thing and a noble thing. Stauffenberg knew the risks and was prepared to lay down his life for his country and as he said for the greater cause of humanity.

“VALKYRIE” is a very fine film and I would rate it THREE STARS and ½ . Valkyrie was so good it really will have to be on anyone’s list of the top 50 movies ever made on a WWII theme. Not as great a film as “Patton” or the “Bridge over the River Kwai” but on the level of “TORA TORA TORA” which is very good indeed. “Valkyrie “ was a better movie than the very entertaining but childish -by comparison-“The Longest Day” or the cheaply made Hollywood bio-picture of the 1951 “The Desert Fox” (which also had as a subplot the 20 July plot) That film featured Luther Adler as a very memorable but typically violent and maniacal Hitler. “Patton” was a tour de force by George C. Scott but as World War II buffs will remember there were some historical inaccuracies in so far as uniforms and German weaponry. “Valkyrie” by contrast left no stone unturned to make the film authentic in every detail from the Wolf’s Lair reconstruction to authentic Ju-52 transports and Messerschmitt fighters. Much of the film was shot in the actual buildings and locations.

Every educated person should know about how easy it is to sit back and criticize collaborators with the Nazis and other dictators and how extremely hard it is, and dangerous, to oppose a modern totalitarian state. “Valkyrie” captures the terror and doom and sometimes faltering courage- of the conspirators very well. “Valkyrie” is a film worth seeing and in fact will reward multiple viewings. Stauffenberg’s daughter called this film a success. I agree. “Valkyrie” is a wonderful monument to a great human being, a loving husband and father, who did a true man’s part. “You could not endure the shame; you resisted; you gave the great, eternally vital sign of change, sacrificing your glowing lives for freedom, justice, and honor.” Yes, indeed.

RICHARD K. MUNRO, Bakersfield, California December 29, 2008.

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