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Movie Reviews: Valkyrie and Downfall

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Movie Reviews: Valkyrie and Downfall

I saw Valkyrie in early January, then followed that up a few days later by renting Downfall. Here is my take on both films.

Valkyrie was directed by Bryan Singer. Based on the conspiracy of some members of the German officer corps to assassinate Hitler in 1944, this film stars Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the motive force behind the plot in its later stages.

PLOT and SCRIPT: I know a lot about the various plots against Hitler, having read about this stuff for years. The moviemakers took a few liberties to streamline things, but it was more or less accurate as historical movies go. Part of the trouble with Nazi-themed films involves the topic itself: it is a thin line to walk between making a movie interesting to watch and grounded in reality, but without it becoming a "war porn" flick. I think they pulled it off.

    The plot moves along well; there are few boring moments, and some genuine suspenseful episodes. One finds oneself rooting for the plotters, even though one knows they will ultimately fail. In this sense, Valkyrie reminded me of Apollo 13: you know the astronauts will make it home in the end, but you still feel the tension and stress. In this case, you know the heroes will fail, but you still get emotionally invested. Apollo 13 is a much superior film overall, but Valkyrie still succeeded in that regard.

     The emphasis was on suspense, and I do wish they had given us more insight into Stauffenberg's character and the various motivations of the plotters besides "get rid of Hitler." Much ended up resting on the actors to take what the script gave them and do something intriguing with it.

ACTING:

      I thought Cruise was okay in the role. I've never hated him as much as some people do, but I'm not exactly a fan of his either, having a firmly neutral opinion of his acting talents. His physical resemblance to the actual von Stauffenberg is remarkable. I thought he came across as a "strong presence,"  but I didn't think there was a lot of nuance or subtlety. He did his job, but was outshone by the supporting cast.

      Kenneth Branagh did an amazing job as Major General Henning von Tresckow. In reality, Tresckow was one of the first high-ranking German officers to turn against Hitler, and was the main motive force behind the conspiracy until Stauffenberg was recruited. He also turned against Hitler for primarily moral reasons, while many of the other plotters didn't turn against the dictator until Germany began to lose the war. Tresckow is something of an unsung hero historically. The scenes involving a failed plot to blow up Hitler's aircraft are nicely played.

     Tom Wilkinson was well-cast as Colonel General Friedrich Fromm, aware of the plot but unable/unwilling to fully commit himself, then shooting the conspirators himself once the plot failed, in an attempt to get rid of witnesses who knew of his complicity. Bill Nighy was likewise excellent as General Friedrich Olbrict, a more sympathetic character than Fromm, but more fearful and indecisive than Stauffenberg or Tresckow . Terence Stamp gave a certain dignity to his role as retired General Ludwig Beck. The various other supporting actors all do their jobs well, including Eddie Izzard as the general in charge of shutting off communications from Hitler's headquarters once the bomb goes off.

DIRECTING and SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF:

    Accurate uniforms, equipment, sets, and strong location shooting were all up to snuff. I like seeing real JU-52 transports and P-40 Warhawks in action. Singer is a solid director  for action sequences and suspense, but perhaps less skilled in portraying emotions, though the supporting cast helped carry that load. The sense of menace during the few scenes when Stauffenberg meets with Hitler and his entourage was well done I thought.

OVERALL

    Cruise was okay, the directing was good, the script and plot solid enough, and the supporting cast excellent. Overall it was a good movie, but not something that will win an Oscar.

Downfall (Der Untergang) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, was issued in 2005. I can't believe I waited so long to see his movie, but Valkyrie got me thinking about World War II so I thought I'd give Downfall a shot. Valkyrie was pretty good, but Downfall was amazing.

PLOT and SCRIPT: Like Valkyrie, this was based on historical truth and eyewitness accounts of what went on in Hitler's bunker during the dying days of the Third Reich.

Much of the movie centers on Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary. There were some liberties taken, particularly in regards to some of the secondary characters. Other than the naïve Junge, there aren't any real "heroes" or sympathetic people in the movie, except for a couple of German Army characters and perhaps Dr. Ernst Schenck, who comes across as courageous and caring. The problem here is that the real Dr. Schenck was an SS doctor with links to human medical experimentation. Perhaps the filmmakers found it necessary to Hollywoodize at least one character, but it was something people should know about..

    Some reviewers have criticized the film for glorifying Hitler, but I don't think it came across that way at all. More on that below. Given that the script is in German and I had to read subtitles, it is hard to judge the film on literary merits in terms of how the language worked. I noted however, that at times I stopped paying attention to the subtitles and was still able to follow what was going on, despite knowing about 10 words of actual German. That is the sign of a great film, that it holds your attention even when you don't understand everything the characters are saying.

ACTING

    The acting is first-rate. I thought all the secondary characters were very well done, especially Alexandra Lara as Junge and Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels. Ulrich Noethen has a brief appearance as the sinister, yet oddly bookish, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, but manages to do a lot with it.

    But as everyone who has seen this film knows, the acting of Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler totally steals the show. It would be wrong to say that Ganz's take on Hitler makes the dictator sympathetic. But it does make him human, and indeed as much as we would like to dismiss him as a one-of-a-kind monster, the fact is that he WAS a human being. The same man who loved his dog was the same man who slaughtered millions and burned a continent to ashes. The same man who was kind to his secretaries was the same man who unleashed industrialized genocide. Somehow Ganz manages to portray Hitler as desperate, vicious, and destructive, but without becoming cartoonish.

DIRECTING and SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

    The director and his crew do a great job of recreating of what had to be a stifling and emotionally claustrophobic atmosphere in the bunker. As for suspension of disbelief, the whole feeling of the film is "end of the world" in nature, which is what was intended.

OVERALL

    A brilliant film, probably the best film I've seen in the last ten years.

    In a way, both films deal with the same question: how do we respond to evil? First, we have to recognize that evil has a human source, which Ganz's performance emphasizes. It is easy when the evil is being committed by "the other," someone outside our own tribe. But what do we do when faced with evil generated by or within our own communities? Some respond by actively embracing the dark side, assisting that evil in spreading, as a Himmler or a Goebbels did. But how many of us respond as a Stauffenberg or a Tresckow did, with integrity and courage? And how many of us would respond by ignoring the problem or pretending that it doesn't have anything to do with us?

     I think that is why it is important to remember that even the most brutal historical actors. . .Hitler, Stalin, etc., . . .were human beings. Psychopaths certainly, and psychologically and spiritually distorted examples of humanity, but still human. And that their great evils could not have been committed without millions of people "following orders," and millions more simply looking the other way. This is the great lesson of the 20th century, and we forget it at our own peril.