Valkyrie (2008)

2015 #41
Bryan Singer | 108 mins* | TV | 16:9 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

On the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death, the true story of some people who tried to kill him…

ValkyrieAfter abandoning the X-Men franchise for a Superman reboot/continuation that was retrospectively branded a commercial and critical flop (it actually grossed $391 million worldwide (more than Batman Begins, for example) and has a fairly strong Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%), director Bryan Singer returned to more traditionally dramatic fare — and Nazis — with this true-story war movie about a German plot to assassinate Hitler.

Tom Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an army officer who believes Hitler needs to be removed for the sake of Germany’s future. Invalided home after an RAF raid, he discovers he’s far from alone in his beliefs when he’s recruited into a conspiratorial group who have already failed to assassinate Hitler several times. There he concocts a plan to take out Hitler with a bomb during his weekly briefing at the Wolf’s Lair, blame it on the SS, and use the Führer’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan to seize control before any of his cronies can do it first.

There’s no point beating about the bush: they don’t succeed. We all know that. The film’s marvel, really, is in making us believe they might. Well, not believe it — we’re not stupid, are we? — but invest in it. It’s also a revelation how far they got. No, Hitler isn’t killed, but the associated confusion engineered by the plan (they cut off communications from the remote Wolf’s Lair, meaning the news that Hitler survived takes a long time to come out) means an awful lot of Valkyrie is enacted. In the end, they’re done for by bad luck — some people make some decisions which undermine the plan, whereas if they’d gone the other way it might have succeeded even with the Fuhrer still alive. What might have been…

Edge-of-your-seat tensionOne of the stated aims of the conspiracy is to show the rest of the world that not everyone in Germany believed in what Hitler and his inner circle were doing. It may have taken us a long time to realise that, for fairly understandable reasons, but quality films like this help get the message out. Singer has crafted a proper thriller here, replete with scenes of edge-of-your-seat tension. Many a filmmaker can’t manage that with a fictional storyline, never mind one where we know exactly how it turns out.

A top-drawer cast help keep the drama ticking over too. Complaints that accompanied the theatrical release, about the German characters all speaking English, feel thoroughly bizarre. How many movies in history have foreigners all speaking English? I mean, what about Schindler’s List, for just one broadly-related broadly-recent example. Have we really reached a point where everyone is so accepting of subtitles? No, of course we haven’t. I think it’s a baseless criticism to latch on to; one that misses the point so severely it’s difficult to think how to rationally argue against. It’s just wrong. Anyway, most of the cast are British thesps — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Tom Hollander, even Eddie Izzard — so you’re guaranteed quality. Even Terence Stamp proves that he can act, in spite of what some other performances would have me believe. Cruise is a suitable leading man. This isn’t one of his greater acting performances, Brave men who tried to do the right thingbut nor is he in simplistic action hero mode.

Elucidating a sometimes-overlooked aspect of an over-covered era of history, managing to tell its story with all the thrills and tension of a narrative where we don’t know the outcome, Valkyrie is a film to be commended. It’s also a fitting tribute to very brave men on the ‘other side’ who tried to do the right thing.

4 out of 5

* I always try to list the running time of the version I watched, but I feel this one needs a quick explanation, because it’s a full 13 minutes less than the listed running time. Was it cut? Probably not. I watched it on TV, with PAL speed-up and end credits almost entirely shorn. PAL gets you down to 115 minutes; I can well believe there were seven minutes more to the full credits. So there you go. ^

The Great Dictator (1940)

2009 #31
Charles Chaplin | 120 mins | DVD | PG* / G

One of the great things about doing 100 Films in a Year has been the number of firsts it’s either led me to or just been there to document: my first time watching films on Blu-ray and via legal download; my first time seeing films from directors as diverse as Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, F.W. Murnau and Krzysztof Kieslowski; my first time viewing such notable works as Breathless, Brief Encounter, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, This is Spinal Tap, The Wizard of Oz, and many more — including my first time seeing Citizen Kane. And here’s another for the list: my first ever Charlie Chaplin film.

The Great Dictator is one of Chaplin’s most widely-known films thanks to setting its sights on the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler in particular. The general perception of silent comedians like Chaplin immediately suggests slapstick, but the real-world targets here make his work (on this film at least) satirical as well. I’m sure this made for great propaganda when it was released just a year into the war, but Chaplin’s skill and accuracy mean it works beyond that: like all good impersonations or spoofs it doesn’t make its objects silly for no reason, but instead takes what’s inherently laughable about them and exploits it. This would age some satirical humour, reliant as it can be on topicality, but the wide awareness even a modern audience has of Hitler means there are no comprehension problems today.

The style of humour can date nonetheless, but The Great Dictator remains funny — arguably the real test of a good comedy. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s a problem comedy faces whenever it’s made. Chaplin loads the film with inventive and timeless routines, like the upside-down-plane, the coin-in-the-pudding, or the classic dance with an inflatable globe. Sometimes with comedy from decades previous, there’s the feeling you’re watching something that was funny at the time but no longer actually makes you laugh, thanks to changed conventions and expectations. For me, at least, there was no such problem here.

Surprisingly, there are some serious scenes too. While it doesn’t outweigh the comedy, there’s a degree of semi-factual drama in the plot that’s been well judged to help the humour cut deeper. The closing speech could come across as overly propagandistic but, again, it’s well pitched and therefore more galvanizing than inappropriately laughable. There are some bits, like this, that are sadly just as applicable to the modern world.

Chaplin allegedly said he wouldn’t have made The Great Dictator if he knew how bad things really were under Hitler, though some dispute this, arguing he knew and made it regardless. Some bits are slightly uncomfortable when one knows the reality, but whether Chaplin knew the truth or not these moments are fleeting. And, either way, Hitler and the Nazis were a worthwhile target: laughing at those who attempt to terrorise and dominate us is one of the most powerful weapons we have against them. That, certainly, is still true today.

5 out of 5

* For reasons known only unto the BBFC, The Great Dictator was classified U until 2003, when film and video reclassifications both made it a PG. ^