Valkyrie has a peculiar view of the German side of World War II. If the film is to be believed, the Nazi military ranks consisted mostly of: a) honorable resistors who thought that Hitler was a national shame; b) careerists and opportunists who sided with the Nazis for personal gain or to save their skins; and c) cowards quaking in their Nazi boots. The notion of devoted, ideologically committed Nazis is all but foreign to the picture it paints. Aside from Hitler himself, played by a game David Bamber, and his innermost circle (consisting here of a couple silent background figures), I’m not sure we see any of those at all.
Such an odd historical distortion would have been fatal to any purportedly serious treatment of the Holocaust or the Third Reich, but fortunately Valkyrie doesn’t purport to be anything of the kind. Bryan Singer’s film is, rather, a sleek suspense thriller — and as such, it eschews a lot of historical context anyway. Its portrayal of the Germans, though craven in its desire not to sully its heroes, is water under the bridge.
It’s quite remarkable that Valkyrie works as a suspense thriller since, as others have noticed, there’s not much suspense to its story: Colonel von Stauffenberg’s plan to assassinate Hitler obviously failed. The reason it does work, I think, is that Valkyrie‘s suspense isn’t of the rousing, creep-to-the-edge-of-your-seat variety. The film is cold, metallic; the tension it creates is more akin to dread. We know that these resistance plans will go astray, but probably not when or how. At points I found myself irrationally hoping that it would work after all. Watching these events unfold is a disquieting experience, instilling a sense of desolation above all else. But in this way, Valkyrie is also effective. It ties your stomach into knots.
More depressing still, the film smartly doesn’t give us a chance to revere its heroes as noble martyrs, taking great risks out of a deeply felt moral conviction that Hitler was wrong or evil. Early on, Tom Cruise’s Colonel von Stauffenberg does say that his duty as a military officer has become “to save human lives” rather than support his Führer, but it soon becomes clear that for most of these men the motive is nationalistic: they fear that Hitler is headed for a brutal defeat, which would be disastrous for their beloved Germany. This makes Valkyrie feel even more cold and austere. We care about this plan, but not really about the men carrying it out.
Bryan Singer directs with a detached elegance we haven’t seen from him since the similarly Nazi-themed Apt Pupil ten years ago. His work has a brooding energy, a simmering tension. Tom Cruise adjusts in a good performance: his character speaks in a self-assured whisper, the very portrait of resolve. The film is as steady as he is, a gnawing, slow-burn thriller with few peaks and valleys.
Valkyrie may have been a great film instead of merely a good one were it a stronger procedural. It’s not terribly meticulous in this regard; the heroes’ military and political strategy is lucid, but their operations moment-to-moment are less plausible. Often they seem to be acting out in the open. Their security seems to consist of speaking about their plans in a low tone of voice while walking through crowded rooms.
The last few minutes turn the movie into a more conventional World War II drama, which is also a little disappointing. But Valkyrie gets credit for approaching this material from the perspective of a ruthless, efficient genre film instead of a reverent historical account. It’s uncomfortable, and not very pleasant, but it works.