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Despite being born and raised in the era of “Free to Be You and Me,” following World War II, I never felt free to be German. Seemingly unable to escape my heritage because it is the country from which my last name is derived-- as a child if you were to ask me about my ethnic background, I'd list the other four nationalities first, drop an octave and then apologetically whisper “and German.”
Black Book, Downfall, The Counterfeiters, and Nowhere in Africa—regardless of their origin, the films instantly makes the small amount of German blood in me boil and the results find me feeling irrationally guilty.
Last winter was no exception as once more theaters were filled with titles concerning World War II that ranged from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to The Reader to Defiance to the long-delayed Bryan Singer venture Valkyrie produced by and starring United Artists’ new studio head Tom Cruise.
The Reader (much to the surprise of everyone when Kate Winslet took home both a Golden Globe and Academy award for her little-seen role), the reaction to Pajamas was extremely mixed, and Defiance opened under everyone’s radar after the holiday season. Yet despite its controversy and ever-changing release date that once had been scheduled for Valentines Day of 2009, in the end it was the senselessly pre-judged and ridiculed Valkyrie that scored a major “V for Victory" both for United Artists and World War II movies as it became “one of the biggest grossing box office adult movies* of the past holiday season,” as the press release acknowledges. (* Yes, I didn't think the word order of "adult movies" was a great choice either.)
Tropic Thunder which may have helped turn the tide for a film that was receiving negative buzz way before it opened.
Whatever the case may be, in my view the movie is a success on a number of levels. Sophisticated and highly intellectual, the work which tells the true story of a brilliantly engineered plan headed up by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) and several other high ranking German soldiers to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944 engages you deeply into its suspenseful plot. This is all done via the painstakingly historical efforts put forth by Singer and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for The Usual Suspects) and his co-writer Nathan Alexander.
Curiously and despite the fact that it's a natural plot for Hollywood fodder, the story is long overdue for cinematic treatment and it’s one that as the Blu-ray for the release informs us, McQuarrie literally chanced upon while in Germany years ago researching something else entirely. When he noticed a small memorial of four soldiers including von Stauffenberg, he discovered that Germany’s involvement in the war was not quite as “black-and-white” as it has been portrayed for decades on the silver screen.
In addition to von Stauffenberg and von Tresckow, we meet several key players including General Frierich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), and General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) and more including some like Fromm who are fearful of what would happen if it goes horribly wrong.
Bravely rewriting it, setting new details into play and forming alliances with a string of like-minded soldiers-- von Stauffenberg never makes a misstep even when he’s face-to-face with Hitler himself and has to receive his signature on the new document.
Likewise, Bryan Singer doesn't miss the opportunity to use his penchant for suspense to punch up the execution of Alexander and McQuarrie’s dialogue driven script (inspired by HBO’s Conspiracy, ironically starring Kenneth Branagh). In doing so, he makes every scene a truly intense action sequence even when a pen and not a sword is used and this approach is precisely what made Valkyrie one of the most thoroughly gripping and fresh takes on the World War II genre in a long time.
X-Men and Usual Suspects director explained in the production notes that adopting accents would most likely have distracted from the plot as a whole and he felt more inclined to just make the piece “engaging” rather than docu-drama like--given its meticulous attention to detail in filming for example some of the firing squad sequences exactly where they happened makes this deviation from authenticity increasingly hard to ignore.
While Journey of the Valkyrie and two commentary tracks are included (including one with childhood friends and Usual Suspects colleagues Singer and McQuarrie and star/producer Tom Cruise and the other with writers) along with other featurettes that reveal just how much Cruise and some cast members looked damn near identical to the men they portrayed (see below)—the two standouts on the Blu-ray include a historical mini-documentary hosted by von Stauffeberg’s grandson called The Road to Resistance and a Q&A conversation hosted by Annette Insdorf with Singer and Cruise.
Passionately made by Singer who recalls in a conversation with Insdorf that when he was growing up Jewish and obsessed with the war his two best friends just so happened to have been German born German Americans here in the states—Valkyrie honors the brave and intricate plan and similarly those involved. In other words, it reminds us once again of the important lesson that there’s so many sides to every story. And on a more personal note, after walking out of a WWII picture for the first time in my life, I finally felt not just "free to be" but very proud to be a German American.