Tom Cruise And The Plot To Kill Hitler

Tom Cruise
And The Plot To Kill Hitler

By Jim Kushlan

If you know that Adolf Hitler wasn’t assassinated in 1944, and that World War II in Europe did not end suddenly with a coup that ousted the Nazis, you already know how the forthcoming film Valkyrie ends. But knowing how Valkyrie must inevitably end takes away none of its power.

This cinematic telling of the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler and replace his regime with a German government ready to sue for peace works. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, Superman Returns) pulls you into the circle of conspirators, immersing you in their surreal public and private worlds. You end up living history in the present moment, forgetting what you know and thinking that maybe, just maybe, this coup could work.

The possibility of success is all that the film’s main character requires before he will commit to a coup attempt. Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, whom Tom Cruise plays with dignity, passion, and occasional woodenness, is a living symbol of what the Third Reich has done to Germany. The war has taken his left eye, right hand, and last two fingers of his left hand. Through the wonders of modern filmmaking, Cruise appears throughout the film with these parts notably absent. His glass eye figures prominently, and his missing hand makes for a powerful “Heil Hitler” scene.

We first meet Stauffenberg in North Africa with the 10th Panzer Division, sound-bodied but already convinced that Hitler is destroying Germany, wasting the lives of its troops, and sinning against humanity. A thunderous and very convincing air attack leaves him dying on the sand. When we catch up with him in a Munich hospital (and meet his wife, played by luminous Carice van Houten), he is physically ruined but eager for action against Hitler.

Recruited into the resistance by Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), Stauffenberg proposes a coup built around Operation Valkyrie—an emergency plan that lets the Reserve Army seize control if Allied attacks or an uprising threaten the rule of law. The plot will require Hitler’s death as the pretext for enacting Valkyrie, and as the only way to release Germany’s military personnel from their personal oath of loyalty to the Führer.

To give Stauffenberg access to Hitler and the ability to oversee Valkyrie, Tresckow has him appointed chief of the Reserve Army’s general staff, with an office in the Bendlerblock, Berlin’s military nerve center. There, Stauffenberg works with General Friedrich Olbricht, a key resistance member and the architect of Valkyrie. Bill Nighy portrays Olbricht with convincing nervous intensity, masterfully conveying a realistic sense of the stress weighing on the coup-makers. (Nighy also utters the film’s only and therefore oddly prominent f-word.)

Stauffenberg meets Hitler three times in Valkyrie. David Bamber plays a quiet, avuncular Führer, around whom people behave with telling wariness. On the third meeting—July 20, 1944, at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s eastern-front headquarters—Stauf-fenberg attempts the assassination (after aborting an attempt on the second meeting). In nerve-wracking scenes, he arms a bomb and shoves it in a briefcase, which is placed beneath the table where Hitler is conferring with generals and staff in a conference hut. Stepping out just in time, he sees the blast and decides Hitler simply must have died. He and his aide hurry to Berlin to join Operation Valkyrie, already in progress.

But Valkyrie isn’t in progress. Olbricht has hesitated, awaiting confirmation that Hitler is dead. Once Staffenberg arrives, the coup goes into full swing and it seems Valkyrie may actually bring the Nazis down. Then comes news of Hitler’s survival. We start remembering the grim ending we’d managed to forget so far.

Valkyrie convincingly conveys WWII Germany, especially Berlin. The Bendler-block scenes were shot on location. Period vehicles and aircraft, precisely crafted uniforms, and the furnishings and technologies of the era are flawless. You are in Germany in 1944.

The holes in the otherwise seamless garment of time and place come from accents. Ironically, in a film full of Brits and Americans, it is the accent of German actor Christian Berkel (playing Olbricht’s assistant, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim) that sounds wrong!

The real Stauffenberg was an aristocrat steeped in noblesse oblige, a serious man who held himself accountable to God. He had boorish views about the uneducated poor, and his thoughts on where Germany’s borders should fall were distinctly imperialistic. He had viewed Hitler as good for Germany. But when he saw the Third Reich for what it was, he sacrificed himself trying to save his country and the victims of Hitler’s crimes. Valkyrie is a fitting tribute to him and his fellow resistance members, and a reminder that not all Germans embraced the swastika.

Jim Kushlan is the managing editor of America in WWII magazine. This article originally appeared in the magazine’s February 2009 issue.

Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer, written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, starring Tom Cruise, Carice Van Houten, Kenneth Branagh, and Bill Nighy, United Artists, in theaters December 26, 2008, PG-13.

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