“I swear by God this sacred oath: That I shall render unconditional obedience to Adolph Hitler, Fuhrer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the armed forces. And that I shall at all times be ready, as a brave soldier, to give my life for this oath.”
Taking a page from Roman history, Adolph Hitler required all of his armed troops to swear this oath, not to their country as most armed forces require, but to him personally. It was a necessary step in his brutal campaign to remake Europe, and eventually the world, in his own image. Loyalty to Hitler did not come in degrees; it was absolute, or it was nothing. Only then could the man commit the acts he eventually did with any support at all. But that support was not absolute.
“The Fuhrer’s promises of peace and prosperity have fallen by the wayside, leaving in their wake a path of destruction. The outrages committed by Hitler’s SS are a stain on the honor of the German Army. There is widespread disgust in the officer corps toward the crimes committed by the Nazis. The murder of civilians, the torture and starvation of prisoners, the mass execution of the Jews. My duty as an officer is no longer to save my country but to save human lives. I cannot find one general in a position to confront Hitler with the courage to do it. I find myself surrounded by men unwilling or unable to face the truth. Hitler is not the arch-enemy only of the entire world, but the arch-enemy of Germany. A change must be made.”
There is a tendency in history to oversimplify the events of the past. The Civil War was about slavery, or the American Revolution was about taxes. While these can be considered facts, they tell only part of the story. The same can be said of Nazi Germany. There is a general belief that all of Germany were Nazis, when the actual party membership was quite small considering the general population. The above excerpt from the journal of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg tells a very different, and far more accurate story. There was resistance to Hitler, and men and women were willing, and indeed did, give their lives to remove Hitler.
It is absolutely true that in July of 1944 there was a failed attempt on the life of Adolph Hitler. Rather than bringing about the end of his tyrant reign, it actually gave him an opportunity to hold his power even tighter. It was an excuse to execute some 5,000 Germans, by making them suspects in the plot, whether they actually were or not. Hitler had also flirted with an almost god-like rhetoric of destiny. By surviving such an attack, it appeared to some that Hitler was divinely favored. His escape truly appeared miraculous. In the long view it helped to reconcile the German people with the rest of the world once the war had ended. A plot from within demonstrated that there was a conscience of the people, and they had attempted, risking their own lives, to remove the threat to the world at large. We need only look to history in order to know that the plot will fail. So I don’t think I’m in danger of revealing anything that approaches spoilers by revealing the end here. The journey here is remarkably uninteresting when you consider the subject matter. I felt like I was being made privy to the most intimate moments of the plot itself.
The cast is strong, and I’m not really talking about Tom Cruise here. Look, Cruise is the kind of guy you either love or you don’t. I would not skip a film because he’s in it, but I would never go out of my way to see one because he is in it. His own personal baggage has often overshadowed his on screen accomplishments and honestly. There’s a Tom Cruise burnout factor out there. No, it’s not Tom Cruise that makes this film. It’s incredibly believable performances by the likes of Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, and even Eddie Izzard. These guys all inhabit their parts as if they were born to play them. They do an excellent job of portraying the act of conscience that these men embarked upon. They were not necessarily extremely brave men. You won’t find the typical Hollywood bravado here. There were unsure at times. They were frightened by the contemplation of their own discovery and inevitable execution. But they acted. I love films that portray this kind of courage and bravery. No chest thumping. No waving the rifle into the air. No catchy phrases of triumph. Just ordinary men thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
When you come to understand that this film was shot on some of the very locations where these events occurred, it can be rather sobering. The executions of the four plot principals occurred on the exact spot that each of the actual men died. Bryan Singer used these locations to great effect. It was awkward to see the Nazi symbols flying over Germany once again, even if only to recreate an unfortunate history. The crew required extraordinary permits. It is not legal to display a swastika in Germany today. You can go to jail for merely commemorating Hitler’s birthday. I’m sure that these set dressings on these Berlin streets were quite chilling to the German citizens who bore witness to the shoot, particularly those that were alive in the 1940’s.
But with this brilliant cast, wonderful locations, and superior production values, Valkyrie is not a great film. I’m not sure that it was ever intended to be. It was most certainly a huge disappointment at the box office. The film sported a $75 million budget but only brought in a little over $80 million at the box office starting on Christmas Day 2008. While that may sound like a hefty enough profit to people like us, it is not even a break even figure in Hollywood. By the time prints, administrative costs, and marketing were done, Valkyrie lost money at the box office. Perhaps it was a mistake to release it on Christmas. I’m not sure it’s the subject matter that befits the holiday season. It would have possibly done better money as a late summer release. Expectations were high for this film. Any time you have the kind of cast that Valkyrie has, you are looking for far better numbers. But the cast had only so much to work with. As good as they all were, none of these characters were ever fleshed out. In the end you discover that you know remarkably little about them as people. While the made for television film spent too much time on their personal lives, this movie spent almost none. Hitler himself, while looking strikingly like the man, is a shell of a character. No one believes that a man that could whip a nation into so much frenzy could, in reality, be this dull. Someone forgot to bring humanity to characters who acted because of their humanity. Singer expects us to sympathize with them because of what they stood up to. In life I can certainly respect and honor these men I never knew based solely on their actions. But now I’ve met them, in a manner, and still don’t know who they are. More’s the loss.
With the release now in home video, where many films make their best money today, there is hope, but only a little. It’s a film you really ought to see, but likely it will do best as a rental. It does not have that rewatchable trait to make it a huge seller at the retail level. And that is my suggestion to you. Skip buying it, but give it a rent absolutely.
Valkyrie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. You’ll find a solid 1080p image arrived at through an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. For some reason I can’t quite understand much of the color has been washed away from this image. I guess there was a feeling of documentary that dictated the artistic choice. I thought it took away from the realism the locations and flawless props and costumes gave it. There are moments of color, but you’ll find that primarily in the reds of the Nazi flags. They do stand out quite starkly against the more bleak palette of the film in general. There is remarkable sharpness and detail here. It almost goes against the lack of color. Detail is high. The uniforms were done quite well, and you can see the slightest decoration and marking on the dress. Black levels are very high and well defined with plenty of shadow detail. The print is flawless, and you won’t be suffering from any kind of compression artifacts. The bit rate stays in the 30 mbps range.
The DTS-HD Master Audio clocks in at about 2.7 mbps of uncompressed audio. The first thing you’ll notice is how revved up the subs are in some of the early battle footage. I was most impressed with the great sense of directionality the presentation offers. A good example is the flight of aircraft early in the film. As the angle changes your audio perspective is changed appropriately. From one angle the engines are a bit muffled as they would naturally be, while at others they rumble as if you’re right on top, which by the way, you are. Dialog remains clear at all times. The score ebbs and flows with the action and does a fair job of maintaining the emotional tone of the scenes. It’s a near perfect presentation.
There are two Audio Commentaries. The first is with Tom Cruise, Bryan Singer, and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The session is filled with a lot of give and take and is the best of the two. Singer and Cruise offer a lot of information on the changes and evolution of the project. The second track is a tech heavy affair with McQuarrie again but this time with his writing partner Nathan Alexander. Here you’ll get some compare and contrast with the actual events. McQuarrie particularly did a lot of research on the events, and it shows here.
The Journey To Valkyrie: (15:56) HD: Here we discover where the idea came from and how it evolved. Cast and crew all offer the typical hype and love fest material, particularly for Cruise. I suspect his contract calls for no less than four participants to glow about him on camera. Topics include casting and locations.
The Road To Resistance: (9:08) HD: Philipp von Schulthess is the grandson of von Stauffenberg. He talks about the man and takes us to some of the significant places in his life.
The African Front Sequences: (7:01) HD: This is a behind the scenes look at the opening battle sequence. It was not filmed at the actual location, but rather the Mojave.
Taking To The Air: (7:32) HD: A look at the authentic aircraft used in the film.
Recreating Berlin: (6:61) HD: While the film was shot on the actual locations, a lot has changed in 60 years. This piece looks at the location shoots and how the crew turned back the clock to 1944.
92nd Street Y The Reel Pieces With Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer: (38:57) SD: This was some kind of local television show with a woman interviewing Cruise and Singer about the film they apparently just screened. The interviewer is pretty bad here. She rambles on and interrupts.
The Valkyrie Legacy: (1:54:15) (HD): This nearly 2 hour documentary is worth looking at. This is a very in-depth look at the events and the film itself. This is the kind of background that I wish were more in the film. If you want a really good look at the subject, you can’t afford to miss this feature.
It’s always a gamble to make a film about historic events. You have the double job of trying to make an entertaining film and yet do the historic facts some justice. The audience is already going to know how it turns out, so you have to give them something they don’t know to keep their interest. Ron Howard accomplished this superbly with Apollo 13. Bryan Singer missed the mark a little with Valkyrie. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The sets, locations, cinematography, and cast are all excellent. Sometimes you can never put your finger on just went wrong, ever so slightly. But here it’s fairly easy. With all of his careful planning and casting, Singer forgot the characters themselves. You can’t fault the performance or the surroundings. Singer brought the shopping list, and he bought everything on it. But apparently it doesn’t help if you forgot to write something down. What was that I needed? Oh well. “Nothing ever goes as planned.”