Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg lost an eye, a hand and several fingers in the service of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. He sacrificed the rest of himself fighting it.
There are no surprise twists in Valkyrie, the story of Stauffenberg's assassination attempt of Hitler. There are no happy endings. The German dictator survives. Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators do not. Their failed July 20, 1944, coup is both tragedy and farce—a chronicle of missteps and poor luck.
When the film opens in 1943, Stauffenberg—a lieutenant colonel stationed in Tunisia—is already disillusioned by Hitler's government. We're made to understand that he was banished to Africa for speaking against the Reich, and he chronicles some Nazi atrocities in a letter home: "My duty is no longer to save my country, but to save human lives," he writes. Minutes later, allied planes strafe Stauffenberg's compound, pocking his body with bullets and destroying his left eye, his entire right hand and two fingers on his left.
Three months later, Stauffenberg returns to Germany a hero. But despite his rank, medals and accolades, the German is a Nazi traitor-in-waiting. It doesn't take long for a band of conspirators—a small but influential group of politicians and generals—to find and usher him into its inner circle.
The goal? Overthrow or kill Hitler to preserve Germany and, perhaps, save Europe.
"We have to show the world that not all of us are like him," says Major General Henning von Tresckow, the conspiracy's military ringleader.
When von Tresckow is transferred to the front, Stauffenberg takes the major general's place as leader. He recruits new conspirators with an almost reckless alacrity. He recrafts Hitler's Operation Valkyrie—a blueprint for preserving the Reich should the fuehrer be killed—to serve Stauffenberg's own ends. And, because he has regular access to Hitler, Stauffenberg is more than the conspiracy's brain: He becomes the triggerman, too.
When the fateful day of execution arrives, Stauffenberg travels to a military briefing carrying two small bombs in his briefcase. The meeting is to be held in Hitler's reinforced concrete bunker, which will amplify the explosion. Everyone in the bunker, Stauffenberg is told, will be killed instantly. Once Hitler is dead, the conspirators will cut off and arrest Hitler's cronies, take control of the government and sue for peace.
Or so went the plan.
It's rare the words "treason" and "heroism" are comfortably linked. But in the case of Stauffenberg, the link, for many, works.
Stauffenberg is a traitor—he admits it himself, and owns up to its consequences—but to one of history's most immoral governments. He loves his country but hates its leadership, and the colonel believes that decapitating the Nazi beast would be less a political assassination and more a virtuous act of war. In hindsight, it's hard to argue. If assassination can ever be justified, it seems this would be as clear a case as one could imagine. When some of his other conspirators dither, Stauffenberg plows forward, undaunted—holding a firm, unwavering conviction that their cause is just.
"It is not that simple," says one would-be recruit, wrestling with a decision to throw in his lot with the conspirators.
"Yes," Stauffenberg says. "Yes, it is."
Stauffenberg's so sure of his cause, in fact, that he's willing to put not only his own life on the line, but the lives of his wife and children—people he clearly loves. Not that he's reckless about it. He knows the Reich will come after them if he's unsuccessful, so he sends his family far away from Berlin. And, when the conspiracy starts to head south, he frantically tries to contact his wife—putting in call after call until the Nazis cut the phone lines.
Most of the rest of the conspirators also are motivated by high ideals—though some differ on methods. One politician advocates confronting Hitler directly, believing that trying to assassinate him is immoral. "I would've thought a man of your caliber would've thought of a more honorable approach," he tells Stauffenberg.
The historical Stauffenberg was a practicing Catholic who justified his treasonous pursuits through theology and faith. The film doesn't spell this out, but it does hint at his motivations: As Stauffenberg gets dressed, the camera focuses on a cross and ring hanging around his neck. His first meeting with the conspirators takes place in a roofless, war-torn church, in which we see the anguished face of Jesus—a corpus hanging in the church—looking on.
Actually, many conspirators suggest that it's their divine duty to save Germany from Hitler. One refers to "sacred Germany" during his trial, and von Tresckow tells Stauffenberg, "Only God can judge us." A conspirator recalls the biblical story of Sodom, and how God would've saved the city if only there had been five righteous people living in it. When God judges Germany, the man says, "It may come down to one." Stauffenberg shouts, "Long live our holy Germany!"
But the Nazis also commandeer religious language. The first words we hear in Valkyrie compose a "sacred oath" Nazi soldiers take to Adolph Hitler. And when Hitler survives the attempt on his life, he goes on the radio to address Germans, whom, he says, "Almighty God has visibly blessed today." He declares God saved him so he could finish his "holy task."
Of note: The word valkyrie literally means, in Old Norse, "the choosers of the slain." In Norse mythology, minor gods selected who was to live and who was to die in battle—a fitting metaphor for the seemingly capricious way in which fate selected Hitler to live and the conspirators to fail. We hear Richard Wagner's famous "Flight of the Valkyries" during the film, and we know that Wagner's operatic retelling of Norse myth had a major impact on Hitler's idealized image of Germany.
Stauffenberg and his wife kiss several times. The word whore is appropriated for a non-sexual purpose.
Allied planes strafe Stauffenberg's North African camp: Vehicles blow up, and dead soldiers are scattered on the ground. Stauffenberg sprawls motionless in the Tunisian dirt, his uniform punctured by bullets. He bears the scars of this attack, obviously, for the rest of his days, and we occasionally see the stumps of his fingers and wrist, and once are subjected to the sight of his mangled eye.
The July 20 plot culminates in an explosion, complete with flying wood, furniture and bodies. The scene, while jarring, is clean and quick: No blood, no gore. Subsequent executions and suicides are, likewise, brutal but bloodless. Audiences see uniforms fill with holes, after which bodies slump to the ground. One conspirator shoots himself off camera. Another holds a grenade to his jaw; it explodes after the scene ends. Still another is apparently hung by piano wire. (We see guards put the wire around his neck, while to the right of him hang several lifeless bodies—victims dispatched the same way.) A Nazi leader puts a cyanide capsule in his mouth.
Blood does visibly flow when Stauffenberg cuts himself while shaving. And we see soldiers afflicted with all manner of war injuries in a medical ward. We also fleetingly hear about Nazi atrocities.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Occasional uses of "b--tard," "d--n" and "h---." God's name is interjected a couple of times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Most everyone smokes. Characters mash butts under their feet and, occasionally, use the burning end of a cigarette to kill mosquitoes. A party boasts alcoholic beverages: One glass contains not just liquor and ice, but Stauffenberg's fake eye—a not-so-subtle signal that he'd like to meet with the person holding the drink.
Von Tresckow rigs a case of cognac with a bomb—an early attempt to kill Hitler. The bomb fails to explode, however, and von Tresckow treks back to Berlin to retrieve the package before anyone discovers its true contents. When a lackey of Hitler's suggests to von Tresckow they have a drink from the cognac, von Tresckow feigns disappointment: What would the fuehrer say if he knew a subordinate was drinking on the job when he (Hitler) never drank at all?
Other Negative Elements
Not all the conspirators are motivated by idealism. General Friedrich Fromm, piqued by perceived slights from Hitler's inner circle, puts a foot in the conspirator's ring primarily, it seems, to advance his own career once Hitler has been removed. He quickly withdraws it when the conspiracy begins to unravel and, in fact, orders the execution of the ringleaders—perhaps, in part, to conceal his own treasonous dabblings.
Valkyrie, the movie, has been almost as snakebitten as its story's chief conspirators. Germans were tweaked by the thought of Tom Cruise—widely scorned in the country because of his Scientologist faith—playing one of their national heroes. And when the first snippets of the film started appearing online, Americans couldn't help but snicker at the sight of Cruise in an eye patch. MGM and United Artists didn't help public perception much by changing the film's release date more often than Madonna changes stage outfits.
So it's fitting that, just like Stauffenberg and his crew, the movie has earned a bit of redemption after the fact.
Valkyrie is good, if not great: It's relatively faithful to the historical text, and it clips along at a nice pace. Moreover, it steers clear of gratuitous sex, gore and even (for the most part) foul language. There's less violence in Valkyrie than you'll find in any modern war movie, and even most of the classic ones from the 1960s and '70s. It has heroes (who have to grapple with conscience and cause), a horrific villain and a fine message: We must stand up for what's right, regardless the cost or chance of victory.
Valkyrie is still about assassination and war, of course. And it sometimes fizzles, both ethically and as art. But it doesn't explode, either.