Hollywood Takes on Hitler

Valkyrie is a triumph for Tom Cruise, but The Reader disappoints

Film Germany History Military

Good, old-fashioned anti-Hollywood sentiment has dogged the making of Valkyrie, director Bryan Singer’s cinematic retelling of the 1944 Stauffenberg assassination attempt on Hitler. There’s been the usual European indignation and snobbery about America taking on anything “of ours”. But most of the criticism has surrounded the central casting of Tom Cruise. Even Stauffenberg’s son weighed in when the star’s involvement was first announced. “It’s bound to be rubbish,” he told an interviewer at the time. “He should keep his hands off my father. He should climb a mountain or go surfing in the Caribbean. I don’t care what he does, so long as he keeps out of it.”

Steady on now. Such vitriolic contempt goes way beyond the call. An expression of wry surprise might have been more dignified, maybe even justified. Stauffenberg Snr was, after all, a tall and charismatic German count. Cruise is 5′ 7″ on a good PR day, and even at 46, more successfully conjures up the spirit of the high-school prom king, or the can-do eager pup, than that of a European aristocrat steeped in honour and hinterland. I imagine that Stauffenberg Jnr would have preferred a young Jeremy Irons or a Charles Dance perhaps – performers with a finely cultivated, if actor-ish, sense of breeding. But such types are rather thin on the ground these days.

We got Cruise, and it’s largely down to him, along with a superbly pared-down narrative, that the film actually works as well as it does. The toothy, sparkly grin is not once to be seen. Even when that sometimes grating brand of Cruise “intensity” rears its head, it is reined in fast. He is sombre. But all this would not in itself be enough. It is Cruise’s status as a gold-plated movie star, his screen presence, which brings the character of Stauffenberg alive and underlines his heroic status. In any ensemble scene (and there are many, especially in the first half, as the coup against the Führer is planned) your eyes always drift across the room, past the rather motley contingent of British stalwarts hired to play his co-conspirators – to him. If that was the effect the real man had, then Cruise makes it work for us now.

The fact that we know how things turned out does not make the story any the less absorbing. The knowledge that the Jackal did not get De Gaulle, and that the Titanic did indeed sink, did not stop audiences making those films hits. We’re not children who constantly need surprises. The thrill – and in essence, that is what Valkyrie is, a thriller – is in seeing how things went wrong, which bad turns were taken, whose character defects came into play and who was, ultimately, to blame for the failure. Singer’s film is admirably clear on the crucial moments of indecision and the wrong assumptions that came in the aftermath of the explosion that left Hitler with just a few cuts and bruises.

The one message conveyed in this otherwise straightfoward, uncomplicated film is that the conspirators were acting out of a need to put an end to an ongoing crime against their country, that, in the words of Kenneth Branagh’s General Tresckow, they needed to “show the world that we were not all like Hitler”.

This kind of future-retrospective dialogue is common in historical films with an eye on the present, and it jars. It also tends to give credence to the view – brilliantly rebutted by Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners – that Nazism was somehow something done to the Germans. Which jars even more.

Kate Winslet, playing a caricature version of herself in the BBC comedy series Extras, declared cynically that the best way to an Oscar is either by playing a “mental” or being in a Holocaust movie. She took her own advice, it seems and, having already hyperventilated at the Golden Globes, now looks likely to clean up at the Academy Awards for her portrayal of a former concentration camp guard in Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader. I haven’t read the book, and if the screen version is faithful, I’m not moved to. Told largely in flashback, and framed by the ice-cold presence of Ralph Fiennes, it is the story of how one man’s life is affected by an affair he had as a teenager with an older woman (Winslet) whose dark secret is only revealed to him when, some years later, she stands trial for war crimes.

I am sure – indeed am told – that there are layers and layers of nuance to this rather protracted tale, that it explores the second-generation Germans’ feelings about the war and their forebears’ part in it. Crude as my mind processes undoubtedly are, I couldn’t bring myself to care much what happened to this woman. In fact, I’m somewhat angered that perhaps I was even meant to. The idea too that she would take the rap for the mass murder of 300 people rather than reveal that she was illiterate, seems preposterous. On that premise does the story hinge, and on that premise it collapses
completely.