What if I told you that World War II could have ended almost a year before it did? For those who have a passing interest in such events, you will undoubtedly understand that I am referring to the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) in July of 1944. It was really a fluke that he survived the event. The bomb that went off in the meeting room of his so-called Wolf’s Lair (the Nazis were fond of their canine cousins), the headquarters of the German high command on the Eastern Front in modern-day Poland, should have killed him. That is what the principal hand in the operation, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), believed when he left the base to head for Berlin and carry out the subsequent coup. Boy did he have egg on his face when, in the midst of a monumental change in government in the middle of a war, it turns out that Hitler lived. These dramatic events form the basis of a solid movie called Valkyrie (2008).
Before we get to any plots to overthrow the Nazi regime, Valkyrie starts with Colonel Stauffenberg serving in the famous Afrika Corps in North Africa. He believes that the war is going badly, and you can tell through his journaling that he is beginning to lose faith in his fuhrer. Things go from bad to worse when his battalion is strafed by the Royal Air Force, wounding him severely, leading to the loss of his right hand, a few digits on his left hand, and left eye. While back in Germany recuperating, we learn that there are other plots underway to get rid of Hitler. Indeed, we see Major General Henning von Trescow (Kenneth Branagh) smuggling a bomb onto Hitler’s plane in a wine case, which does not detonate. Major General Trescow travels to Berlin to retrieve the package, which thankfully goes unnoticed, and meets another co-conspirator, General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy). In discussing recent arrests among their ranks, Colonel Stauffenberg’s name comes up as a possible new recruit. Colonel Stauffenberg attends a clandestine meeting, and it is here that we find out that there is an entire resistance network, with many highly placed members in the German command, who believe that Hitler is bad for Germany (which would be putting things mildly, but such is hindsight). Where they differ is in what to do about the situation, particularly in the aftermath of their hypothetical success in deposing their despotic leader. It is then that Colonel Stauffenberg proposes using something known as Operation Valkyrie, a plan that would put the country under the control of the Reserve Army until order is restored. There is only one catch: the current head of this unit, General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), is not amongst their number. Despite Colonel Stauffenberg’s efforts to bring General Fromm over to their side, the senior officer remains noncommittal. Importantly, he does not report the conspiracy. This emboldens Colonel Stauffenberg to go ahead, which involves traveling to Hitler’s private estate in the Bavarian Alps, known as the Berghof, to have the fuhrer sign off on the rewritten orders for Operation Valkyrie. They are pitched to Hitler as contingency plans, little suspecting they are part of a conspiracy to overthrow him. Next, they begin devising the nuts and bolts of how to execute their assassination plan. It appears to get a boost when Colonel Stauffenberg receives a promotion to General Fromm’s staff, meaning he will have more direct access to Hitler. Their first window, though, does not go as planned when not every member of the Nazi leadership is present for a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair. The resistance tells Colonel Stauffenberg not to go ahead with planting the bomb when he reports this news to them. Undeterred, Colonel Stauffenberg tells his family to leave, and waits for the next opportunity. It does not take long to come. However, because of the summer heat, Hitler has decided to have the next meeting at the Wolf’s Lair in a different room, one with more windows, making the explosive less effective. Nonetheless, Colonel Stauffenberg manages to plant it at Hitler’s feet. Then, under the pretense of having to attend pressing matters elsewhere, he leaves. In one of the more serendipitous moments of Hitler’s life, an accidental knocking over of the bag leads a staff officer to move it to the other side of a stanchion of the conference table. Thus, when the bomb goes off, the fuhrer is partially shielded from the blast. Still, believing he had succeeded, Colonel Stauffenberg heads to Berlin with the task of bringing Germany out of the resulting chaos. He finds a General Fromm resistant to the news, and when the head of the Reserve Army calls the Wolf’s Lair to confirm Colonel Stauffenberg’s claims that Hitler is dead, he is told the opposite. Colonel Stauffenberg proceeds anyway, thinking they could get the majority of the army on their side regardless of Hitler’s status. This, too, proves to be a false hope. Before too long, the Reserve Army on which they had been relying to remain loyal to them had rounded up Colonel Stauffenberg and his cohorts. They are then taken outside and summarily executed, Colonel Stauffenberg defiant until the end. With a few historical notes, this is basically where the film concludes.
Unlike most reviews I do of movies that deal with real historic events, I will not breakdown the historical accuracy of Valkyrie. From what I understand, it is pretty good, even if Colonel Stauffenberg was not the totally heroic, or central, figure as he is portrayed. For example, the man was a hardcore anti-Semite. That is not a good thing, boys and girls. Yet, because this is Hollywood, we need someone for which we can root, even if they were all Nazis of varying degrees. You can be at least somewhat sympathetic toward Colonel Stauffenberg because, well, at least he was not Hitler. The Nazi leader is a challenging figure for a Catholic believer. The Bible tells us to love our enemies, no matter what, at all times. How can you feel this way about someone who led the world into such catastrophic destruction? How can you practice Christian virtues for someone who signed off on the murder of six million Jews simply for being adherents to that religion? Put differently, is it Christian to attempt to assassinate such a monster, or to support such an action? Before you go saying, yes, of course, please understand that these decisions are not always so simple. Ultimately, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath Berlin shortly before the end of the war. What I think might have been best is if he had been captured and forced to answer for his crimes. Incidentally, corporal punishment is not supported by the Catholic Church, under any circumstance. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine Adolf Hitler being re-habilitated, even if allowed the opportunity to do so. Clearly, this was the thinking behind the plot to assassinate Hitler. This is also what the film banks on you feeling to get behind the designs of men who were in reality no angels themselves.
Having said all this, if you can ignore some of the finer historical points, as Valkyrie does, you have a pretty intense thriller. Hitler is one figure from the past about about whom most people seem to have a little knowledge, if only that Hitler equals bad. That is enough, I suppose. For those interested in seeing more, you could do worse than this film.