Valkyrie: Tom Cruise’s Unwanted Masterpeice
Valkyrie is rich movie, proud and dark and grieving, offered as a gift to a nation hanging by a thread, at the time of year when it seems even the sun itself can be defeated, not only a terrific thriller but a richly nuanced masterpiece of moral and emotional complexity.
If you admit that Valkyrie is a fine movie far above the action/adventure/thriller genre, you must listen to it speak—with beauty and power and dignity—of what it means, under the most terrible conditions, to be a citizen. You must admit that this fine cast of actors—some, like Tom Cruise, too old to reinvent themselves; others, like Kenneth Branagh, known for serious work for small audiences; Carice van Houten and Halina Reijn struggling to escape the artistic limitations imposed upon their gender; others young actors just starting out—knew that they wanted to have a serious conversation about what it means for us to live as citizens in our world today.
Therefore the critics largely hate it, especially because Valkyrie was made by a popular director and a popular star for a popular audience. For Valkyrie trusts its viewers to watch and listen, then go home asking: What do they mean? And then engage in an act of moral and intellectual imagination, based upon fact, not fantasy, to develop and use the answer, in our public and personal lives. How dared they? you can almost hear the critics demand, baffled and afraid.
Because this is a movie that shuns the coarse, the ignorant, the base, the vulgar and the trivial. This is a popular movie offering pure quality, rejecting the common intellectual—the common American—belief that the way to make money is to feed people garbage for their bodies and garbage for their souls.
Valkyrie is not the first time the “guardians” of popular culture have turned away from a masterpiece set in the military realm that has implications—moral or political—far beyond the military.
An enormous number of people across the political spectrum were delighted to dismiss Admiral James Bond Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, as a doddering old man whose hearing aid had cut out. Stockdale was not only a military hero who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for helping American POWs maintain their self-respect under the most degrading of conditions in the Hanoi Hilton, he was a genuine Stoic philosopher. Had we taken Stockdale seriously as a Vice-Presidential candidate, we might have had to take him seriously as a philosopher whose writings were as applicable to our ordinary lives as to his extraordinary one. Likewise, Ike: Countdown to D-Day is a stunning film, full of extraordinary acting, the best of which is Tom Selleck’s amazing, masterful performance as General Eisenhower. Ike is all about the moral weight of high command and the relationships—emotional, intellectual, political—amongst the men who must make those decisions. Combat and its human consequences are the constant theme of the movie, yet the pornography of violence is thankfully absent, and for this, the critics hated it.
I am personally familiar with this response: in 2004 and 2005, I went to Iraq and Afghanistan, where I was embedded with combat troops, in order to write Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military (Seal Press, 2006). I began by examining what US servicewomen are really doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. I ended by considering what it means to be a woman and an American citizen in the tradition of the Republican political philosophy of the Founders. This made a lot of people, starting with my publisher, very, very nervous: people will say utterly bizarre, factually untrue, things about the book. But at least people will talk to me about it. Sometimes. I’m currently working on a love story set in the Chechen Wars. Most people read a snippet of that and I never hear from them again because my characters are primarily military personnel, deeply concerned with an issue they’re not supposed to worry their pretty little heads about. The individual’s right, a right so complete and profound that it is an absolute obligation, to contribute to and preserve civilization. To make judgments, then execute those judgements.
Civilization and its preservation, then, is the great theme of Valkyrie, and the more you admit that Valkyrie the movie speaks to you, the more you must take your measure against the conspirators of Valkyrie, the real life plot to end Hitler’s rule. The question is not, what you would have done in their place in Hitler’s Germany? The question is, how, across the vast gulf of time and culture, do the conspirators speak to us about how we live here in America, today? The questions they ask us are, Are we proud of our lives? Are our lives worthy of us?
How does a two-hour, popular movie do this?
It begins with allusion. Two examples suffice.
The first is when Claus von Stauffenberg (wonderfully played by Tom Cruise) confronts Major General Erich Fellgiebel, signals chief of the German Army, and recruits him for the conspiracy not by appealing to his humanity or his patriotism, but by accusing him of committing treason for years. Immediately the viewer must ask, Why did Stauffenberg say that? What is he talking about? But if the viewer has seen the movie or read the book Enigma, or has heard about the Bletchly Park decryption effort to break the German codes so vital to winning the Battle of the Atlantic and thus Britain’s survival as a free nation, the viewer must wonder if there was any connection between Fellgiebel’s treason and the success of Allied code-breaking efforts. And in fact Fellgiebel (along with his deputy Colonel Kurt Hahn, who was not shown in the movie) almost certainly acted on his own moral authority as an independent accessory to the Allied code breaking activities. And so we realize Fellgiebel, too, is an actor against horror, not a bystander to it.
The second is when Stauffenberg reports to Hitler to obtain his signature on the Valkyrie orders he, Stauffenberg, has revised in order to use the Reserve Army to bring Hitler down. Hitler’s companions in that scene include the monstrous and horribly able Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, and Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production. Of all the men the movie depicts, Speer will be the only survivor, the only high-ranking Nazi official to express remorse. Speer is in uniform, and the camera lingers on Speer’s Organization Todt cuff title. Todt is the German word for death and the OT was a huge forced labor concern that directly killed human beings by working them to death, and brought death to millions more through what those slaves were forced to produce.
Valkyrie does not enter into historical arguments about codebreaking or good Nazis, it simply shows us two very different men who made very different choices and came to very different ends and trusts us to backfill the story. It trusts us to ask questions, then seek the answers.
The film’s tremendous economy could not work without superb casting, starting with Tom Cruise, who perfectly conveys Claus von Stauffenberg’s own beauty and magnetism and drive. Valkyrie gets right the historical fact of the physical beauty of so many of the conspirators—not all of whom were young like Stauffenberg. Genetics and good nutrition influence our appearance but so does character, as the film makes clear in powerful, nearly silent cameos of two dark, small, slender, people, one male, one female, in a society that valued male physical power. Halina Reijn gives a riveting performance as Margarethe von Oven, in a simplified screen version of the confidential secretary von Oven actually was. Reijn shows us a woman who has become beautiful by mastering on a daily basis her very real, very justified fear in order to show mercy towards the helpless and the conquered, while Harvey Friedman wonderfully portrays how Joseph Goebbles has warped his natural physical elegance by embracing cruelty. This man and this woman are held up to us as mirror images: physically, they are virtually identical, but their profoundly different choices, which have worked upon their souls in the dark, show clearly in their faces.
This theme of mercy and cruelty, and the cost of upholding one in the face of the other leads us to the most fascinating piece of casting, Kenneth Branagh as Henning von Tresckow. At first glance, Branagh is utterly, profoundly wrong as Tresckow. When we see Branagh, we see young, bluff Henry V, not Henning von Tresckow, whose final photographs show his elegant face worn down to the fine, brilliant eyes and bemused smile of a man who remembers being told as a young officer that he would either become Chief of the German General Staff or end on the gallows and now knows which fate is within his grasp to choose and just exactly why he is choosing it. Specifically, to see Branagh is to remember his two speeches as young King Harry in Henry V: the first, given to the town elders of Harfleur, is on the atrocities of war and Branagh is very good; the second, of course, is the Saint Crispin’s Day speech, on the nobility of war. Branagh blows this speech completely, almost appears to be laughing through it, so great is his disbelief in the words he is speaking.
And then we realize that Branagh has probably been cast as Tresckow in order to invite us to remember both speeches: the artistic failure of the St. Crispin’s Day speech passing through the artistic triumph of the Harfleur speech in order to show us the genuine nobility of the honorable profession of arms. Overtly, Valkyrie touches very lightly upon the issue of atrocities, only enough to know that the conspirators knew of them, but not nearly enough to show how much they knew and how deeply it motivated them.
It is this comprehensive knowledge of atrocities, of the Holocaust itself, that runs beneath the surface of Valkyrie, a rip tide of blood and pain. The German Army (the regular Army, as opposed to the Wehrmacht or Armed Forces which included the Waffen-SS, who were little better than the SS-Totenkopfverbände and Einsatzgruppen in terms of their conduct towards the helpless) was deeply involved in atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war, especially in the East. Many of the conspirators had service in the East. They had seen ditches full of the dead of all ages and both sexes, the women often raped before they were murdered, all of them lucky if they had been killed still clothed, or even if they were in fact completely dead or in terminal shock. They had seen peasants looted of food and clothing and expelled from their homes in the literal dead of a Russian winter. They had ears that they could overhear in the officer’s mess of the women, especially Soviet medical personnel and partisans as a form of torture before being murdered for resisting the master race, enslaved in the Wehrmacht’s field brothels. They had eyes that they could see industrial and agricultural slave laborers by the millions: an elderly von Kleist, a member of a very noble Prussian family from whom the Gestapo reaped a rich harvest, resisted great official pressure to work his laborers to death, rather than feed and house them decently and treat them with dignity. His behavior was not the norm. And they did not have to be senior generals read into state secrets to know that thousands of rail cars and tens of thousands of men were up to no good end, heading away from the front, holding and guarding hundreds of thousands of conquered civilians, when the front was desperate for rolling stock and combat troops.
These weren’t stupid men: they were intelligent, educated, thoughtful, some of them extraordinary practitioners of the military art, who must not be judged by the psychologized ethics of modern America: I feel, therefore I am; I am depressed and saddened—or, conversely—outraged, therefore, I am moral. They were members of an aristocratic military, which is to say knightly, caste. They took chivalry not as class courtesy but as a genuine ethic, the core of which is courage in the face of the enemy and mercy towards the conquered. They were profoundly shamed by German policies and the actions of German soldiers: as Christopher Browning accurately wrote it in the title of his 1992 book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland; as Jonah Daniel Goldhagen also accurately wrote it in the title of his 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. They knew how much popular support there was for this cruelty, for these crimes. And so they had a sense of the victims’ privacy: many of them had surely seen the photographs of the tortured and enslaved, the raped and the murdered that so many German soldiers took as trophies and a very but also genuine few as evidence. To speak in any detail of the crimes they had seen, either with their own eyes or in photographic evidence, was to become an accomplice of those who had degraded the helpless.
You do not advertise such shame, you wash it out in blood or you are an accomplice. To the extent that you delay expunging your shame in the blood of the perpetrators who are also your comrades-in-arms as well as your compatriots, you are an accessory. And while conspirators did not perhaps know the exact outline of the Holocaust, they knew beyond all unknowing that Germany had let loose great horror upon the world. They knew what they were abetting, willingly or unwillingly did not matter. They did not pretend that they knew nothing and could do nothing. They knew, therefore they found ways to act. Repeatedly.
To grant the conspirators their actual knowledge and experience of this horror, as Valkyrie does, rather than to complain, as several reviewers did, that the movie doesn’t make clear why Stauffenberg and the rest of the conspirators wanted Hitler dead, is to unquestioningly grant them their morality and their motivation.
Most of these men were believing Christians, generally Protestant, a few like Stauffenberg, Catholic. It is not to trivialize their religious beliefs, any more than it is to impugn their genuine and frankly unreciprocated love for their people, or the soldierly virtues many of them genuinely possessed to say that none of these were enough, that they were motivated by a dark and profoundly pagan morality.
The attempted coup of 20 July 1944 took place very late in the war, the last of many attempts on Hitler’s life, all of which had failed by sheer fluke of chance, and after several key conspirators had been arrested. Very few of the conspirators were personally guilty of the murder of non-combatants, so it would have made sense for them to lie low. But that would have meant deliberately acceding to the murder of the helpless and that was not acceptable to them: as a conspirator in Valkyrie observes, Every living thing in Europe will pay the price for that. The conspirators were not martyrs, they wanted a chance of success. And Valkyrie wordlessly, powerfully shows just how slender those chances were in the grim shots of grey, stone government quarter buildings, blood red Nazi flags, and all those soldiers of the Reserve Army who were not resisters to provide the physical force needed to seize control of the government.
But the conspirators were also experienced soldiers and administrators who knew how fragile their plans were. Their knowledge of German crimes required them to take the risks they did, not only for themselves but also for their families, because German and Nazi racial doctrine meant guilt was a family matter.
Yet although Germany was a profoundly patriarchal society, I know of no man who became a conspirator over the wishes of his wife: the men had less their wives’ cooperation than their permission, and if many of these women were spared operational details, that was a matter of basic security. Women like Nina von Stauffenberg (Carice van Houten), whose role is wrongly reduced to the convention of woman as a beautiful soul, were fully implicated and provided invaluable administrative, logistical and security support. Margarethe von Oven, in reality an extremely able, knowledgeable, and well-placed administrator involved in inter-war German rearmament initiatives, did not for half a heartbeat think she was typing illicit love letters, any more than did Nina von Stauffenberg when she took four children home to Bamberg, and on her shoulders, under dirty nappies, an entire knapsack of outdated orders to burn. Von Stauffenberg has said that she regarded her husband’s desire that she remain alive for the sake of their children (she was pregnant with their fifth child at the time of the coup) as an order, a tacit acknowledgement of the punishment that both she and Claus very well knew might be imposed upon her and their children. We can only imagine what she felt, her children taken from her, giving birth in SS custody, and what she surmised were the likely fates of her children and herself. We do know that no male soldier from the Eastern Front would have traded places with her.
This is why Henning von Tresckow wrote Claus von Stauffenberg, “The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.” For however great their honest revulsion with Hitler and Naziism, however much they had tried to do and failed, these men had taken their share. And to do nothing when they could still do something was to continue to hold themselves apart from the millions who had been murdered and tortured and enslaved and the millions more who would go to those fates, hoping they and their families might survive. They did not want to live or die that way. And so also, this is why, when Valkyrie went down to bloody disaster, as they knew it very well might, very few of these men committed suicide or engaged in mortal resistance, despite a strong tradition amongst military men to do such things.
Indeed, Tresckow was one of the very few conspirators to kill himself, ostensibly so he would not be tortured into giving names, but when Branagh lifts his eyes heavenward, you see a devout Christian passing stark judgment upon his God and utterly rejecting Him. Tresckow would rather go to Hell than share in the heaven of the god who has permitted what Tresckow knows. (Tresckow was chief of staff of Army Group Center. In the rear of the Army Group operated Einsatzgruppe B, an SS formation dedicated to the murder of civilians and non-combatants. At one point, its commander was an SS Gruppenfuhrer named Arthur Nebe, not shown in the movie, but an honest conspirator and genuine police officer who did not want the position. Tresckow strongly prevailed upon Nebe to accept command, arguing that they needed information about what was happening in the occupied territories and since Nebe did not want to murder people, his command would murder fewer people than if it were commanded by an enthusiast. Nebe was responsible for the deaths of some 45,000 people between June and November 1941: he was considered soft. Throughout the war, the Allies were most loathe to relax immigration quotas, especially for Jews.)
When most conspirators had the means to their own end, one must ask why most instead chose to permit themselves to be arrested, knowing it would mean their torture and degrading death. Few asked for the mercy of a bullet. In fact, many of them taunted their interrogators and torturers with the possibility that Germans could make political and moral choices. In court, in pain and humiliation, sometimes barely coherent, knowing what they said would be held against them during their executions, they insisted upon their rightful obligation to act as they had.
When one realizes that these men had a choice, one also realizes these men chose their places, at the end and forever, alongside those their country had enslaved and exterminated, rather than continue to say, Yes. In so doing, they rejected, for themselves and their families, the superior worth that Germany had assigned them as Germans.
No purer statement of personal worth can be imagined. This is a worth not of class or race or rank or title or religion, or even patriotism. This is the worth of the person one wishes to be and insists upon being. The impulses are respect, not sacrifice, self-respect, not self-sacrifice.
Valkyrie shows us these choices in a series of startling grace notes at the end of the film.
The Chief of the Home Army, Fritz Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) a handsome man gone fat, is a sycophantic fence-sitter during the entire conspiracy; after its failure, he has several conspirators, including Stauffenberg, summarily executed by firing squad, an act that can only be described as a great mercy. Fromm watches the executions, drinking cognac, his face unsympathetic and unreadable but suddenly, unexpectedly, firm. We realize he knows he is going to pay for a very high price. If Fromm is a man who attempts to redeem himself when it is too late, we see the Chief of the Berlin police, Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, achieve his redemption. Helldorf, who in life was actually not physically ugly, is played by Waldemar Kobus as a fat pig in order to show the man’s moral corruption: Helldorf, a former Freikorps member was a Nazi and an anti-Semite deeply involved in the Kristallnacht pogrom, an extortionist and a torturer. And yet, having told the conspirators they could count upon a lack of interference from his men, when Helldorf is arrested he fearfully downs a shot of cognac, then calmly allows himself to be led to an end he knows will be terrible indeed. And in that moment, we see dignity and real manhood begin to reassert themselves in Helldorf’s face. (Like Helldorf, Nebe, who never appears nor is mentioned, for he is too dark and difficult even for this movie, would permit himself to be taken alive.)
Now it becomes clear what Ludwig Beck, who is played by Terence Stamp, means when Fromm allows him to commit suicide and Beck says, “I remember…”
Colonel-General Beck was the Chief of the German General Staff who resigned in 1938 because he knew Hitler was embroiling Germany in another general European war of choice it could not win, which was hideously immoral enough. Later, his opposition to the regime changed and deepened intellectually, which is to say morally. Terence Stamp is very true to the General’s fragile and doomed beauty, echoing, in the evening of his career, the moral choice of his first, great role in Billy Budd, when Stamp portrayed a gay man facing murder in the guise of law, rather than submit to the unwanted advances of an unworthy superior.
Beck has kept faith the young man he was—and I believe I am quoting him directly, but I lost the source a long time ago—who was raised to be a good human being and a brave soldier, and everyone knew what that meant and there were not a lot of excuses for a soldier, especially, not to be both. Beck’s memory of the man he was raised to be, and his long fidelity to a simple, easily obtainable moral ideal are symbolized by his fine face and slender figure: he has refused to become fat while the conquered were starved to death—who were starved to death in order that the conquerors eat well. Beck has earned the right to choose his quick and dignified death, just as Fromm and Helldorf, by forgetting the good human beings and brave soldiers, they too, were raised to be and once in fact were, have earned their terrible dooms, and their redemption lies in accepting that.
And so we also know what Cruise means when once only and briefly the actor breaks role. In life, General Friedrich Olbricht (played with skill and sympathy by Bill Nighy) was a man of great physical courage and supreme self-control who issued Valkyrie orders on 15 July, a highly visible act that drew the attention of Himmler himself, then covered for the other conspirators by inspecting the mobilized units and telling them it was only an exercise. On the 20 July, Olbricht again issued Valkyrie orders on his own authority, uncertain whether Hitler was alive or dead, and knowing if he was wrong, he was blowing the entire conspiracy. Nevertheless, Olbricht is portrayed as a coward, both moral and physical, for the sake of dramatic tension. Yet just before Olbricht (Nighy) goes to his death, Stauffenberg (Cruise) says to him, “Look them in the eye,” and then, in what was surely a promise made by the man to Olbricht’s soul, an apology for the liberties they had had to take with his life, “We will remember you.”
This is why Stauffenberg’s aide, Werner von Haeften (Jamie Parker), another Eastern Front veteran, walks between Stauffenberg and the firing squad, then turns to face Stauffenberg. Haeften is no fool, he knows he is not saving his superior’s life, indeed, he is forcing his superior to watch, as one of his last memories, his aide’s death. But Haeften rejects as his own last memory men defending a government whose cruelty he saw and involuntarily abetted. He would rather be shot in the back than look away from the man who made it possible for him to die the brave and decent man he was raised to be and as which his government refused to allow him to live.
And the crew of Valkyrie know what they are doing: in the Final Notes for Valkyrie, both Cruise and Nighy talk about how difficult it was for them to wear the uniforms of Hitler’s Army. Costume director Joanna Johnson said, “The German uniforms have a very strong look—with the britches and boots, with their sense of both power and tragedy—and each actor brought it off quite differently, in his own way, which was a fascinating exercise to observe.” Cruise and Nighy had less neutral reactions. “Putting on that uniform and looking at the world from that perspective was disturbing,” Cruise said. “I didn’t like it at all. It definitely changes your viewpoint. Then looking at it from Stauffenberg’s viewpoint and what it meant to him to wear that uniform and the conflict he had—it helped me very much.” Bill Nighy said that, “The importance of the clothing can’t be overstressed. To put on something as deeply unsetting and formal as a military uniform makes you hold yourself in a different way, and your behavior is profoundly informed by what you’re wearing.”
Most critics and for that matter some ordinary people hate this movie, going on about accents and lack of conspiratorial motivation and internal character development and obsessing about Tom Cruise, Scientology and how could such wonderful actors as Nighy and Branagh and Wilkinson work in this clunky howler—because this movie is a masterpiece.
If this movie speaks to you, it speaks to you with tremendous economy and proud reserve, showing far more than it says, openly respecting its subject, its cast, and you, its viewer. If you are weeping quietly in the dark at the end, you are weeping not only for the dead, but for all those who are not yet dead, for you will always remember Fellgiebel choosing to submit to arrest—realizing that even under torture, he will protect what he had to have known and the more he had to have surmised about Allied codebreaking efforts—and a brutal death. And to the extent these armed men and unarmed women speak to you, you must ask yourself why they do, and what they have to say to you not only across time, but the vast gulf of culture.
To ask yourself, What do they say to me? is to realize that we Americans put so much of our lives, of how we should live and what our country should be, in a file marked “Too hard.” It’s too hard to create an economy that works for the bottom 95% of us, especially the bottom, say, 75%. It’s too hard to create a culture in which we write for and speak to each other in words of dignity and meaning. It’s too hard to create an industrial policy in which we make what we use. It’s too hard to create a defense procurement program that doesn’t suck up billions into weapons systems that are too expensive to lose, thus too expensive to use. It’s too hard to create a farm policy that produces nutritious, affordable food for everyone under humane conditions for the workers and the animals. It’s too hard to take care of our environment, of the planet that is our only home. Too hard to produce nuclear power plants in order to move away from imported oil and carbon emissions. It’s too hard to recognize that all Americans are citizens and human beings: we “need” people to hate, and gay people are still an acceptable target. It’s too hard to create a trade policy that doesn’t think the rest of the world exists for our consumption, and an immigration policy that recognizes the same thing. It’s too hard to create a foreign policy that recognizes half the planet is women, and many of them are barely recognized to be human, let alone citizens-but the fate of the planet depends upon that recognition. It’s too hard to be physically fit and dress attractively and with dignity. It’s too hard to think this through, and it’s too hard to go up against the corporate interests that have such a stake in keeping us stupefied with food, psychoactive drugs, and coarse entertainment.
Who are you kidding? the conspirators ask us.
And to the extent that we listen to those conspirators ask us that simple question, we know we have no excuses, that doing these things is simply our rightful obligation to maintain civilization, not use it until it is used up, and the world along with it. To the extent that we acknowledge Valkyrie is a terrific movie, speaking to us with dignity and meaning about the choices we all make to uphold or destroy civilization, we have to ask ourselves: Is my life worthy of me and those I love? Am I proud of the choices I am making? Am I willing to live the way I know I should live, in a relatively humane society?
None of us are meant to be fat, vulgar, ignorant, cruel, cowardly. None of us are meant to be passive bystanders in our lives, and the life of our country and our civilization. None of us. Not in Nazi Germany and not here in America. None of us are borne that way. And to the extent that the risk of horrifying suffering and degradation is less for acting, we have less excuse: we face not the Gestapo and the concentration camps, but only our own triviality.