"Valkyrie" is a meticulous thriller based on a large-scale conspiracy within the German army to assassinate Hitler, leading to a failed bombing attempt on July 20, 1944. At the center of the plot was Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, played here by Tom Cruise as the moving force behind the attempted coup, which led to 700 arrests and 200 executions, including von Stauffenberg's. Because we know Hitler survived, the suspense is centered in the minds of the participants, who call up the Reserve Army and actually arrest SS officials before discovering that their bomb did not kill its target.
Considering they were planning high treason with the risk of certain death, the conspirators seem remarkably willing to speak almost openly of their contempt for Hitler. That may be because they were mostly career officers in the army's traditional hierarchy and hated Hitler as much for what he was doing to the army as for what he was doing to the country. Realizing after the invasion of Normandy that the war was certainly lost, they hoped to spare hundreds of thousands of military and civilian lives.
Von Stauffenberg was known to be "offended" by the Nazi treatment of Jews in the 1930s and considered the Kristallnacht a disgrace to Germany, which possibly disturbed him as much as the fate of its victims. In any event, little is said among the conspirators about the genocide then underway -- although, being alienated from the SS, perhaps they didn't know what was happening. Perhaps.
They repeatedly tell each other that even should they fail, at least the world would know that not all Germans supported Hitler. And so it does. And whatever their deepest motives, they gave their lives in trying to kill the monster. The film, directed by Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects"), works heroically to introduce us to the major figures in the plot, to tell them apart, to explain their roles and to suggest their differences. The two best supporting performances are by Kenneth Branagh, as a major-general who smuggles a bomb into Hitler's inner circle and then must smuggle it out again, and Tom Wilkinson, as a general who artfully plays both sides of the fence, treating the plot with benign neutrality while covering himself should it fail.
Tom Cruise is perfectly satisfactory, if not electrifying, in the leading role. I'm at a loss to explain the blizzard of negative advance buzz fired at him for the effrontery of playing a half-blind, one-armed Nazi hero. Two factors may be to blame: (a) Cruise has attracted so much publicity by some of his own behavior (using Oprah's couch as a trampoline) that anything he does sincerely seems fair game for mockery, and (b) movie publicity is now driven by gossip, scandal and the eagerness of fanboys and girls to attract attention by posing as critics of movies they've almost certainly not seen. Now that the movie is here, the buzz is irrelevant, but may do residual damage.
If I say that Cruise is not electrifying, I must add that with this character, in this story, he cannot and should not be. This is a film about veterans of officer rank, with all the reserve and probity that officers gather on the way up. They do not scream or hurry and do not care to be seen that way. They have learned not to panic under fire, and they have never been more under fire than now.
A key element of their plot is to use Hitler's "Valkyrie" plan against him. The reserves were held back to defend Berlin and Hitler in case of an Allied assault, so von Stauffenberg conceived the strategy of killing Hitler, ordering up the reserves to ensure stability and making its first order of business the immobilization of the SS. We see that the plan might well have worked. Indeed, it did -- until the news arrived that Hitler was still alive. So much did the Fuhrer command the fanatical loyalty of troops and civilians with an almost mystical grip, that merely his voice on the radio could defeat the plot, even with Germany clearly facing ruin.
The July 20 plot is an intriguing footnote to history, one of those "what if" scenarios. If it had succeeded, one of the hopes of the conspirators was said to be an alliance with the Allies against Russia. Given the political realities of the time, when Russia was seen as our ally, that would have been insane, but it shows the plotters continuing to dream of a reborn professional German army with roles for them. The question of the liberation of the death camps is a good one. Even the Allies did not bomb the rail lines leading to them. There were so very, very many people who did not know.
In the film Valkyrie, Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the man who, on 20 July 1944, placed a bomb next to Hitler in his east Prussian headquarters, the Wolf's Lair. The bomb failed to kill Hitler, merely blowing his trousers to ribbons. That night, when the coup was seen to have failed, Stauffenberg was shot in the courtyard of the army headquarters in Berlin on the orders of General Fromm, his superior, who was in on the plot and hoped - in vain - to save himself. Sandbags were piled in the courtyard and the lights of staff cars illuminated the victims. Von Haeften, his aide, threw himself in front of Stauffenberg. He and two others were also shot that night and their bodies quickly buried. Stauffenberg died with the words "Long live our sacred Germany" on his lips, or perhaps - some heard - "Long live our secret Germany". In German, there is even less difference between the words "sacred" and "secret" than there is in English.
The producers of Valkyrie have muffled his last words; the story behind secret Germany does not figure in their script, but they were clearly aware of its significance. Within a few weeks, 80 plotters had been executed in Plötzensee prison by slow strangulation, hung from meathooks; in all, at least 3,000 were killed and many children, including Stauffenberg's, were taken from their families and placed in orphanages. Many of those executed were from Germany's most distinguished families, people who, like Stauffenberg, were appalled by the direction Germany had taken, both in relation to the Jews and to the disastrous war in the east.
The film is true to most of the facts of the plot, but fails to convey any sense of the catastrophic moral and political vortex into which Germans were being drawn. Nor does it give much sense of the immense charisma of Stauffenberg, to whom generals and politicians deferred and who had for some time been tipped as a future chief of staff. A revealing private memoir I was given, which describes a visit shortly before the bomb plot by Stauffenberg to one of the other resister's houses, suggests that the female staff were sent into paroxysms of adoration by the wounded hero. And the film gives no indication at all of Stauffenberg's background and philosophy: he fitted perfectly into the German tradition of Dichter und Helden, poets and heroes. For a start, he looked the part, tall with classical features; he was often compared to a medieval statue of a knight in the cathedral at Bamberg, his home town, and his wedding in this cathedral in 1933 to Nina von Lerchenfeld was a huge social event. Even Hitler believed that Stauffenberg was the embodiment of a German hero.
So when the generals failed in their plots against Hitler - there were as many as 15 of them - someone was needed to head the disparate but substantial resistance, which extended from the army into the Foreign Office, the secret services and to important clerics and trade unionists. Stauffenberg was persuaded by his uncle, Nikolaus Graf von Üxküll, long disenchanted with the Nazis, that he should lead the movement. It seemed that he was the man who unmistakably wore the mantle of a near-mystic German past, a warrior Germany, a noble Germany, a poetic Germany, a Germany of myth and longing.
There is nothing in the script or in Cruise's performance that explores these particularly German preoccupations. At times Cruise looks and sounds like the troublesome cop who has been given a tricky assignment, with 24 hours to get the bad guy before he has to hand in his badge: the assassination attempt is treated as a thriller. It lacks the intelligent understanding that Florian von Donnersmarck brought to The Lives of Others (2006), as people from different backgrounds, and with wildly different ideas of what Germany should become, tried to work together.
Stauffenberg's stroke of genius was to subvert the emergency plan for defending Berlin against insurrection, Valkyrie, into a plan for a putsch after Hitler had been killed. As Hitler became more paranoid, it seemed that Stauffenberg was the only one who had both the access and the resolve to kill him. He was fully aware that the chances of success were slim, but he felt that he needed to demonstrate to the world that there was a better Germany - what he thought of as secret Germany - and perhaps that he was the agent of history.
When I was writing my book The Song Before it is Sung, about a conspirator in the bomb plot, I was puzzled for some time that the British refused to trust the various overtures from the resistance in Germany. Stauffenberg was a close friend and confidant of Adam von Trott, the Rhodes scholar who was also deeply involved in the resistance and executed a few weeks after the July plot. I also pondered the question of why Trott's friend at Oxford, Isaiah Berlin, a magnanimous and generous man, came to distrust him, and I wondered why, 30 years later, he wrote in a letter to Shiela Grant Duff, who knew them both well, saying that Trott was no hero and "not on our side". What he saw, I think, is that in ideas of a mythic German past, and in the belief in a historical destiny, lay the genesis of Nazism.
The idea of a noble Germany, uncorrupted by racial inferiors and alien philosophies, a Germany that would be led by a world figure, was not invented by Hitler. Long before he came along, the simple word Führer - leader - had been turned into something messianic, and I think Berlin knew where the blame lay. During their walks and discussions in Oxford, Berlin often said to Trott that when he was at a loss, he turned to Hegel. Hegel believed, essentially, that history had a forward motion to a point where all contradictions would be resolved.
It is ironic that Stauffenberg's son should have been contemptuous of the notion of Tom Cruise playing his father, on the grounds that he is a cultist, because Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg and his two brothers, Berthold and Alexander, were themselves members of a cult that formed around a mythical secret Germany; their master was the poet Stefan George. George is a sinister figure, but in an American newspaper article of the 1920s he was rated one of the most important men in the world. Hardly remembered and little read today, he was a poet who rivalled Hölderlin and Schiller in his fame.
The Stauffenberg family had held the title of "Schenk", which meant "cup-bearer", since the 13th century, an honour bestowed on them by the Hohenstaufens, the legendary monarchical family of Swabia who also ruled Sicily in the middle ages. At the time of Stauffenberg's birth in 1907, his family was to be found at the Altes Schloss in Stuttgart, in the service of the Württemberg monarchy. The Stauffenbergs were a family steeped in tradition, highly cultured, highly regarded.
It was hardly surprising that Stefan George welcomed these good-looking and aristocratic brothers into his circle. This may in part have been because of the homoerotic element in his movement, but it was also because the Stauffenbergs represented everything George felt had been lost in Germany - the medieval greatness of the Hohenstaufen Friedrich II and the warrior qualities of the Teutonic Knights. Poetry was to lead the way back to greatness, and George was Germany's poet; he and his disciples propagated the notion of a unique German-ness, Deutschtum, which was traced back to Friedrich II.
Members of the George circle were subject to some bizarre rules. Only Claus von Stauffenberg kept his own name, presumably because of its flattering historical resonances. His brother Berthold was told not to marry the woman he loved, and he obeyed, at least until George was dead. But even after the war, the surviving brother, Alexander, eulogised George as the spokesman of something uniquely German. Göring revered him too, and after the Nazi takeover of 1933 wanted to instate him as the head of an academy of poetry. George replied that he had for a long time been the leader of German poetry, and didn't need an academy. His circle had many Jewish members, but his views became broadly antisemitic as the Nazis became more important. None the less, he fled to Switzerland and died before it was completely clear where he stood on national socialism. The Stauffenberg brothers were made George's heirs, and after his death tended his grave in Switzerland and continued to organise candlelit readings of his poetry.
As the war progressed, Stauffenberg enjoyed a rapid rise in the army. He was at first enthusiastic about military successes on the eastern front, but had for some time been deeply alarmed by Hitler: Kristallnacht had disgusted him, particularly as his brother was married to someone of Jewish descent. He quickly became aware that the SS, the SD and the Gestapo were creating a lasting legacy of hatred that would one day be avenged. He began to seek out like-minded officers and spoke at times quite openly about his fears for Germany and the army. Sometimes he recited George's poem "The Antichrist" to support his argument. As the advance east was halted, it became more urgent to end the war with at least something of Germany intact. Stauffenberg had particular cause for alarm: he was in charge of logistics for the 10th Panzers and knew that for every thousand casualties, only 300 replacements could be found - disaster was inevitable. At the same time he found himself increasingly appalled by the indiscriminate killing of Jews, Slavs and Russian prisoners, and by the SS battalions' unbridled lust for murder, which was having a corrupting effect on the army too. He often ignored or changed orders: he managed to thwart an order that all Russian prisoners should be tattooed on their buttocks.
After Stalingrad, his outspokenness caused some of his superiors to decide that he should be sent to north Africa, which was relatively free of the SS. There he was severely wounded, losing part of his right arm, one eye and two fingers on his left hand. Through determination he made a dramatic recovery and found himself second in command of the home army in Berlin, under General Fromm, and was also appointed to the general staff, which gave him access to Hitler. After his first visit to the Berghof, he described the atmosphere there as "stale, paralysing, rotten and degenerate". A few months later, he primed the bomb with the three fingers of his left hand and placed it beside Hitler.
The question the film does not raise is what kind of Germany Stauffenberg envisaged had the coup succeeded, which in all probability it would have, had Hitler been killed. Stefan George's poem "Secret Germany" was the inspiration for Stauffenberg's oath of mutual intent for the conspirators, which was typed by his brother Berthold's secretary:
We want a new order which makes all Germans responsible for the state and guarantees them law and justice; but we despise the lie that all are equal and we submit to rank ordained by nature. We want a people with roots in their native land, close to the powers of nature, finding happiness and contentment in the given environment, and overcoming, in freedom and pride, the base instincts of envy and jealousy. We want leaders who ... are in harmony with the divine powers and set an example to others by their noble spirit, discipline and sacrifice.
When Stauffenberg's body was burned, a ring was lost with it. Engraved on it were the words FINIS INITIUM, which is drawn from another of George's poems with the final line "I am the end and the beginning".
This wasn't the Germany that the allies had in mind.
• Valkyrie (12A) is released on 23 January