Nazism continues to be shorthand in our popular culture for evil incarnate, but in recent years our received moral assumptions about World War II have been challenged by two landmark movies–Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows. While acknowledging the bravery of those men and women who joined the resistance in Holland and France, respectively, these films, each in their own way, suggested that what most people did during the occupation was whatever they had to to survive.
It is therefore jarring to return to the easily defined moral clarity of Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, which opens next Wednesday, and which tells the story of a failed 1944 coup against Adolf Hitler by a cadre of his own men. Singer opens his film in North Africa, where Tom Cruise’s disgruntled Colonel Claus von Stoffenberg writes diatribes in his journal about the Führer. “We can serve Hitler or Germany, but not both,” says Stoffenberg, who upon returning to Berlin is recruited by a group of fellow officers who want to assassinate their commander-in-chief and end the war.
The first half of Valkyrie is an effective thriller. Although we already know the outcome, Singer wrests tension from our waiting to see how and when the conspiracy will go awry. But the film’s final half hour is a chore, dwelling on the technical and administrative details of conducting a revolution (one gets the sense throughout that Singer knows he will be competing for critical attention with Steven Soderbergh’s Che).
Valkyrie is pretty obviously intended to be a parable for the War on Terror. A scene in which Cruise delivers medals to a hospital ward of maimed soldiers could have been shot at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And when Hitler survives the attempt on his life, he delivers a radio address filled with quasi-Bushisms: “I see in this the hand of Providence, directing me to continue my work.”
Two of the three stars Singer borrows from Black Book–Carice van Houten, Waldemar Kobus, and Christian Barkel–are wasted in small roles, while the juiciest parts mostly go to a gallery of UK actors, including Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and a where-the-hell-has-he-been Kenneth Branagh. Still, Valkyrie is ultimately the Tom Cruise show. Clearly enjoying his eye patch and stump (Stoffenberg loses his left eye and right hand in the field during an early scene) Cruise plays his reluctant Nazi as the embodiment of all that is decent and kind about the German people. But coming after Black Book and Army of Shadows–not to mention novelists like W. G. Sebald and Günter Grass (who only two years ago confessed to having enlisted in the S.S.)–Stoffenberg’s righteous certainty is, ironically, much closer to George W. Bush’s black-and-white moral vision than our own.–Benjamin Strong