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Valkyrie (Dec. 25, 2008)
By Cathy Schultz
Somewhere towards the end of Valkyrie, the new film about the 1944 assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler, I found myself momentarily believing that the German conspirators might just pull it off. Hitler would get killed. Berlin would be wrested from the grip of the Gestapo and the SS. And Tom Cruise with his eye patch could change history for the better.
But, alas, history tends to win out in the end. And therein lies the problem with films about true-life tales. Going in, we already know the ending.
Yet despite all this, Valkyrie works as a suspense film, thanks to topnotch acting and tight direction. And even though viewers know (or should) that Hitler doesn’t actually bite the dust in July of 1944, the film offers some unfamiliar yet fascinating history about the intricacies and personalities behind the real Operation Valkyrie. Here are answers to questions viewers may have about it.
Q. Okay, that eye patch? Did Cruise need to wear it for his character, or was it an affectation?
A. Internet chatter has mocked Tom Cruise’s eye patch, yet it’s completely accurate historically. Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a leader of the conspiracy plot, who sported a black eye patch after he lost his left eye (along with his right hand, and two fingers from his left) during a British air attack in North Africa in 1943. In fact, images of Stauffenberg from the era show a chiseled profile which uncannily resembles Cruise.
Q. What turned Stauffenberg against Hitler?
A. The film barely touches on Stauffenberg’s motivations, and Cruise plays him as a noble and resolute Boy Scout. Yet the real Stauffenberg was a complex guy, and his motivations are murky. On the one hand, he was intoxicated by the vision of a powerful Germany, and found himself deeply impressed by Hitler’s early military successes. And though never a member of the Nazi party, Stauffenberg wasn’t immune to the regime’s anti-Semitism, at one point dismissing Polish Jews as a people “that is only comfortable under the lash.”
Yet Stauffenberg was also a devout Catholic, and in 1942, he was appalled to hear reports of widespread extermination of Jews by the SS. This combined with his disgust at Hitler’s mismanagement of the Russian front pushed him to commit to the conspiracy. By 1943, Stauffenberg had become the driving force of the assassination plot, which culminated in his planting the bomb at Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters, on July 20, 1944.
Q. Did Stauffenberg have to trick Hitler into signing the changes to Operation Valkyrie?
A. It makes for a suspenseful scene, but apparently a fudged one. Operation Valkyrie was the secret plan Hitler had authorized allowing the German Reserve Army to seize control of the country in the event of civil unrest, whether caused by Allied bombing or an uprising by the millions of slave laborers in Germany. The Army conspirators realized they could turn the plan to their own purposes. After Hitler’s assassination, they planned to initiate Valkyrie, and order the Reserve Army to arrest SS members and disarm Nazi leadership around the country. But the scene in which Stauffenberg tricks Hitler into signing the revised orders never happened.
Q. In the film, the conspirators almost succeed in arresting Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister. True?
A. That part’s also exaggerated. In the film, an officer in the Reserve Army named Major Remer, believing he is following orders, barges into Goebbels’s office to arrest him. But the reality was less dramatic. Hearing rumors of a coup, Goebbels himself arranged to meet with Remer, and informed him that he was being duped by the coup’s instigators. To prove it, Goebbels got Hitler on the phone, then handed the receiver to a startled Major Remer, who had believed the rumors that the Fuhrer was dead. In that moment, as the film shows, the tide turned against Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators. The coup was doomed.
Q. Kenneth Branagh plays a character who tried to blow up Hitler in 1943. What happened?
A. When Hitler visited German headquarters on the Russian front in March of 1943, a prominent conspirator named Major-General Tresckow (Branagh) planted a bomb disguised as a cognac bottle on his plane. It was one of many assassination plots Tresckow had hatched, but this one, like the others, failed. The bomb never detonated, perhaps because of faulty fusing, or perhaps due to the cold temperatures in the unheated luggage area of the plane.
Q. The film gives the impression that the German officer corps was rife with conspirators against Hitler. True?
A. Hard to say. A few German institutions -- like the Intelligence Services and the Army – had managed to keep their independence from more fanatical Nazis like the SS. Anti-Hitler conspiracies and assassination plots percolated among those groups as an open secret throughout the 1930s and ‘40s.
But how many sympathizers existed is impossible to determine. And as a recent London Times article points out, the problem with new films like Valkyrie, and Kate Winslet’s The Reader, is that by showcasing the “good Nazis,” they belie the reality that Hitler and his Nazi ideology maintained enormous popularity among rank and file Germans until the end of the war. “Good Nazis” surely existed, but they were not the majority.
Which leaves me with just one final question. Who thought it was a good idea to release a film about Nazis --albeit good Nazis– on Christmas Day? That question, I fear, doesn’t have a good answer.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Cruise and Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. Cruise is on the right.
A topnotch cast gives life to Valkyrie.