Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Look Back: Valkyrie (2008)

Does anyone remeber Valkyrie? That World War Two flick where Tom Cruise sports a rockin' eyepatch? No?
I'm not surprised.

Valkyrie was a 2008 thriller/historical movie directed by Bryan Singer, famed for X-men and The Usual Suspects. An ensemble cast made up of famous British actors including Bill Nighy and Kenneth Brannagh is led by Tom Cruise as Colonel von Stauffenberg, a disillusioned and disfigured German soldier in Hitler's army during WW2.

The plot is a historically accurate (well, almost) account of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, undertaken by a band of German soldiers and politicians.

Ladies and Gentlemen, our heroes...
Valkyrie has the makings of a good movie, but I found it an unsatisfying and un-entertaining piece of drama. The acting is impeccable and the cinematography is evocative. Tom Cruise is very, very good in this picture. We truly invest in his emotions and he portrays a genuine anger and patriotism that drives his actions. Tension is created through the washed out colours and greyness of the sets and locations, and the dialogue is fairly effective at portraying the anger and dissatisfaction felt by the plotters.

But I had a number of problems, which I think explain why the film is now all but forgotten. Valkyrie is a long film and feels dragged out and slow, although it picks up pace once the third act assassination plot kicks in, yet some of the characters are not engaging. As a result, the audience struggles to become involved and care about these characters. Also, what is the context for their actions? We are not shown why these men are willing to commit treason and risk their own and their families lives, it's just taken for granted. One could argue that the evil of Hitler and his regime is known to every audience member, but the curious closing statements at the end of the film seem to suggest that the film-makers felt compelled to remind the audience that Hitler lost the war. "Hey, it's okay Tom Cruise lost, our boys beat Hitler in the end!"

Though to be fair, this is a pretty kick-ass poster
But there is a more significant problem with the film. The character's speak in English and without German accents.

Now, this might not seem like a big deal, but what does this choice mean for the audience? Considering the message of the movie is that there were Germans who fought against and disagreed with Hitler's regime and with the war, to the point that they would lay down their lives trying to stop it, then by removing the German language and accents, the German identity is lost. This is representative of an annoying yet dark undercurrent within Hollywood.

Think about it? The "hero" of this movie, Stauffenberg, is the only character to speak with an American accent, and is played by a famous American actor. In addition, many of the the more vile and villainous Nazis have British accents. In a film set in and about Germans, the all-American hero faces off against those damned dirty snobby Brits, just like every action movie ever.

America. Fuck Yeah.
If the intention of this film is to restore or depict German integrity during one history's most despised and bloody war, why are there few, if any, German actors?

An obvious, yet cynical, answer could be that having the characters not speak in German is meant to appeal to western audiences and producers tend to think that western audiences do not like listening to foreign languages or having to read subtitles at the cinema. Yet this inclusive and small-minded view is blown out of the water by films such as del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, which is filled with foreign actors speaking German and French, and is much more engaging and better acted then the English speaking British Nazis of Valkyrie.

A darker answer is that, perhaps, having a high-ranking Nazi as the hero of your film was an unpalatable prospect, so an important GERMAN story was repackaged and repurposed to remind us (however subtly or unintentionally) how gosh darn great America was during the Second World War.

Maybe it is for these reason, that audience's rejected it due to it's subversive nature, and that it was made to be as risk-free and "safe" as possible for audiences, that Valkyrie seems to have made little cultural impact, and is never really mentioned anymore.

Overall, Valkyrie was a polished film, and can be admired for it's mise-en-scene, but if you want to see an accurate and enthralling portrayal of the collapse of Germany during the final years of the war, as well as a post-modernist reminder that "hey, not all Germans were bad" check out Hirschbiegel's Downfall.

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