Friday, December 26, 2008
Valkyrie -- Courage and Cowardice
Director: Bryan Singer, 2008.
When the plot is about an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the middle of World War 2, all but the most uninformed will realize that this was unsuccessful and can only end in tragedy. Here Singer (X-Men, X-Men 2, Usual Suspects) reunites with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for Usual Suspects) to deliver a compelling story which is based on actual events. And to his credit he maintains the intensity and suspense throughout despite the inevitable conclusion. The question the viewer engages with is how will this conspiracy develop, rather than how will it end.
Valkyrie opens with the words of the German soldier's oath set against red swastika flags, and soldiers shouting these words. They are prepared to die for their country and their Führer.
Cut to North Africa, where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is writing treasonous thoughts in his journal. Clearly, he is no Nazi. He has come to a conclusion: "I'm a soldier, but in serving my country, I have betrayed my conscience." He has faced the truth and it is not pretty. At that very moment, incoming allied fighter planes swoop down to strafe his men and tanks, and he is severely wounded. The next time we see him, he is missing his right hand, two fingers of his left hand and one eye.
In Munich, General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) is looking to recruit an officer to plan and lead the assassination attempt. Stauffenberg is his man. Stauffenberg eventually joins Olbricht and fellow conspirators Major-General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), Colonel von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel), and General Beck (Terence Stamp). They have a plan for killing Hitler with two small bombs, but no way of seizing control of the government.
The first part of the film focuses on Stauffenberg the man. He is a husband and a father. He shares his participation in the conspiracy with his wife Nina (Carice van Houten, from the recent Dutch WW2 film, Black Book), since she stands to lose her life if he is caught.
It is during one of these family scenes that Stauffenberg has an epiphany as the record player plays Wagner's opera Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Valkyrie is the Old Norse term for the "chooser of the slain in battle," and is immortalized in Wagner's famous composition from this opera "The Ride of the Valkyries" (used in the helicopter napalm scene in Apocalypse Now). Valkyrie was also the code-name for Hitler's emergency defense plan for mobilizing the reserve troops. Stauffenberg realized that if modified it might solve his dilemma.
The second half of the film moves into the execution of the plan. On July 20, 1944, Hitler convened a war council at the heavily guarded "Wolf's Lair." Stauffenberg takes the bombs with him. Then, relying on support from General Olbricht back in Berlin, Stauffenberg expects him to force General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), the commander of the reserve army, to execute their plans. But Fromm is hedging his bets and comes down with Hitler. Olbricht, on the other hand, has lost his nerve. Stauffenberg is on his own. And the closing act shows Stauffenberg as a natural leader who takes all decisions upon himself.
As a conspiracy, Valkyrie presents a tight narrative. With minimal action, it's carried by its suspense. Despite the cream of the acting crop on display, the performances are mostly workman-like. Cruise gets little opportunity to dazzle with his 20 megawatt smile, and his acting is stiff as a result. He seems one-dimensional. Apparently he was cast (or perhaps miscast) due to the similarity of his profile with Stauffenberg's. His is the only American accent throughout, while the majority are British. Bill Nighy is solid but a little unconvincing as a senior officer. Better is Ken Branagh as a fellow general. But David Bamber steals his scenes as a menacing but almost mute Hitler, carrying himself with the air of an emperor that brings dire dread to those around him.
At the start of Valkyrie Stauffenberg declares to a fellow soldier that it is time to face the truth. There is a truth. Truth is not relative. Truth cannot be hidden. Though deceit and lies may abound, though politicians and leaders like Hitler may spin the truth or even distort it, the truth will and must shine forth. Jesus said that he is the truth (Jn. 14:6) and the truth would set people free (Jn. 8:32). As followers of Jesus, we must face the truth as Stauffenberg did and share that freeing truth with others, despite the consequences.
Further, Stauffenberg realizes that his humanity and conscience transcend his nationality. Though a German, he must be true to his conscience and fight against the German Führer, though this is an act of treason. As followers of Jesus, we are first and foremost citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Whatever nationality our passports migh say, our allegiance belongs to God. If our country asks us to do something that is contrary to our conscience or God's commands, we are morally obligated to refuse, even if this means arrest and imprisonment. Stauffenberg gave his life for his beliefs; he chose conscience over country. Are we prepared to do likewise? Jesus does indeed command us to pick up our cross and follow him, meaning to be ready to lay down our lives for him (Mark 8:34).
Finally, Valkyrie offers a striking contrast between courage and cowardice. Stauffenberg stands as a symbol of courage. He was willing to risk all, even the lives of his family. He was a man of principle, who once committed followed the road to the bitter end. Olbricht, on the other hand, had committed but buckled at the eleventh hour. Faced with the momentous decision of giving an order not his, he wavered. He would not do it. He let his team and his troops down. Worse yet, Fromm was a selfish coward who sat on the fence unwilling to commit. He wanted to see certain victory before jumping on to a band wagon. Who are we more like: Stauffenberg, Olbricht or Fromm? In our Christian life, we face a real war, albeit a spiritual one. The apostle Paul tells us we face the forces of darkness and must be armed for this (Eph. 6:10-18). We are indeed Christian soldiers. So, are we courageously going all out for Jesus regardless of opposition, even persecution? Or do we find ourselves sitting on the fence, cowardly refusing to stand for the side we have chosen? The words Stauffenberg says prophetically apply to us too, "Only God can judge us now."
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM