Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Everybody Loves Hitler!

How come in the movies everybody's always out to kill poor Hitler? No wonder the guy was so bitter. Didn't anyone ever think that he might respond to a little kindness? Maybe if there had been a clandestine organization bent on giving Hitler a great big hug, history would have turned out differently. Or they could have all plotted to surprise him with a puppy. I'd go see that movie. Call it Marley and Mir.
Valkyrie (d. Bryan Singer)

A strange thing is happening to me as I continue to attend more and more movies: I'm starting to sympathize with the Nazis.

Oh, not the real Nazis. They were jag-offs. But movie Nazis have been getting the snot kicked out of them for six decades. It's a bit like watching the Harlem Globetrotters continually abuse the Washington Generals. After awhile, the 'Trotters stop being amusing and just start looking like jerks. Would it kill us if the Generals and the movie Nazis pulled out a victory every once in awhile?

Plainly I'm not the only one who has a bizarre fascination with all things pre-Fonzie German. Hollywood is filling the multiplexes with Nazi fun this season. We've already seen the release of Valkyrie (I'm getting to it!) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. In the not-too-distant future, we'll have Defiance, The Reader, Good, Adam Resurrected, and probably a few more. Even The Spirit (see previous review) features a scene with Samuel L. Jackson done up like an urban Colonel Klink.

Nazis are hot!

There's probably no director currently plying his trade more obsessed with all things 20th Century German than Bryan Singer. He previously stared National Socialism right in the eye with Apt Pupil and showed a young Magneto ripping up concentration camp gates in X-Men. Even in his major directorial debut, The Usual Suspects, the furtive criminal mastermind manipulating the plot was named for a World War I German leader.

Now he aims his camera at the story of Valkyrie, an account of the last (of 14!) attempt by the high German command to off their fuhrer.

Tom Cruise plays Claus von Stauffenberg, a patriotic German officer, horribly wounded in North Africa, who loses faith in Hitler and falls in with the cabal of Generals and politicians who hope to bring the war to an honorable end by murdering Hitler and then suing the Allies for peace. Stauffenberg is a loyal soldier and family man who recognizes that the choice he makes will put an end to his military career, endanger his wife and children, and probably will cost him his life.

Cruise, with his Top Gun good looks and All-American manner, functions as a kind of translation convention for the movie. Early on, the subtitled German dialogue transitions to English. Similarly, Cruise's presence makes it easier for American audiences to understand that Stauffenberg is one of the best and brightest. The choice he makes is all the more powerful because of the man making that choice.

Also involved to varying degrees are Kenneth Branagh as an officer whose own attempt on Der Fuhrer's life is thwarted by misfortune, Eddie Izzard as a minor communications officer who will play a major part in Stauffenberg's plot, Tom Wilkinson as an oily general determined to land on the correct side of any power play, and Terence Stamp as the fuhrer-in-waiting (and who, incidentally, is involved in a different kind of fascistic activity a few theaters over in Yes Man). It's a supporting cast in the tradition of previous wartime films like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, full to busting with great character actors.

As Hitler himself, British veteran David Bamber is neither the blustering charismatic, nor the jittery mad man of previous films. Instead, the leader of the Third Reich appears here as a worn down little man, probably aware that the war is slipping away, but refusing to admit it to anyone, especially himself. When he bangs his fist on a table in a rare moment of vigor, it seems as if it's merely theater, done because it is expected of him.

The Valkyrie scheme, involving the placement of unreliable explosives and the mobilization of German reserve forces, is suitably fraught with peril. Even if the viewer has a passing familiarity with how this plot turned out in real life -- and anyone who has glimpsed the History Channel at some point during the last decade probably has an inkling what the ending will look like -- the movie effectively creates a level of suspense that grips an audience and tugs them through to the end.

Still, solid as this thriller is, I couldn't help but hope that it could somehow break out of the goose-step of inevitability. Sorry Nazis. Maybe next time.

3 stars.

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