This is a depiction of the July 1944 plot led by Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) to assassinate the Führer and install an alternate government in Berlin that could negotiate a separate peace with the western allies. This was done to try to preserve as much of Germany as possible when defeat was looking inevitable to all but the most die-hard.
The basic story is well known, but the detail about the “Valkyrie” plan which was in place for imposing martial law under certain circumstances, and how this was exploited by the plotters as the mechanism to gain control, is perhaps not. Kenneth Branaugh has a role and in general, the acting is strong. A moment when a teletype girl reads that the Führer is dead and begins to weep is affecting. The core group of Hitler, Goebbels (well-done by Harvey Friedman), Himmler and Keitel are rather too subdued it seems to me; but it is a relief at least to see Hitler portrayed not as a screeching maniac, but as he actually was, rather soft-spoken and charming. It may be that meetings of the inner circle became taciturn as the enormity of the threat sank in by mid-1944, but intuitively I think not so much.
The movie takes it as a given that Hitler was “bad for Germany.” It is thus another in the new genre of WW2 movies exemplified earlier by Untergang (Downfall) and Sophie Scholl that treats Germany as another victim of Hitler rather than a nation of evil people. Certainly, this is a big step forward from an ethical standpoint. However, Hitler is still presupposed (even if not so depicted) as the Charlie Chaplin-created cartoon-character villain which in reality he certainly was not.
Before listing some real weaknesses of the movie, I would like to discuss one aspect that is often mentioned as a weakness, namely, the performance in English without much effort at “German accent.”
Having actors speak in English, but with a German accent, is fundamentally a device to help the English-speaking viewer identify who the Germans are without actually using German. One must remember that Germans do not sound to each other like they have German accents any more than Americans sound like they have an “American accent” to each other. So the artifact of imposing an artificial accent is misleading at one level. It makes the diction of one group of people seem stilted, acty. There is really no reason to do it other than to aid in identification, and it should be seen as the equivalent of having one group wear white hats and the other black hats. Here, since all the players are Germans, there is no reason for one group to wear white hats and the other to wear black hats. Thus, if the decision is made to render the dialogue in English rather than German with subtitles, it seems like in this case the decision to let the diction be the natural dialect of each actor is a sound one. It gives a naturalness which reflects reality, and which the artificial accent would distort. If anything, the actors could have been directed to strive for a certain uniformity in diction — say, the King’s English. However, within Germany are several distinct accents, so maybe even the non-uniformity of English accent amongst the actors is not a bad thing.
As real weaknesses I would highlight these instead:
The pacing loses steam about halfway through. I started to look at my time-piece after an hour and a half. A good 15 or 30 minutes could have been excised. Like poetry, movies should be lean and suggestive, not excessively detailed. Let Godfather I be the model.
Part of the problem may be getting distracted with rabbit trails. Suspense and romance is injected by supplying Stauffenberg with a beautiful family with the ominous hint that their lives would be in grave danger because of the plot. In the event, Frau von Stauffenberg lived 60 more years and passed away peacefully a couple years ago. (But I would like to see more of the lovely Carice van Houten that played her part in this film.)
Interesting is the detail of General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) wanting to delay setting Valkyrie into motion until the death of Hitler could be confirmed, in that he is over-ruled by his subordinates (Cruise and Christian Berkel) yet his instincts prove correct in the long run. The idea that one violation of chain-of-command set in motion a subsequent one which ended up destroying the conspiracy could have been developed more clearly as a tragic and possibly insightful theme.
The most important lack is the absence of philosophical rumination. Being led by “lower magistrates,” the coup meets one of Calvin’s criteria for lawful rebellion, but the material justification must still be explained. At least one of the conspirators, Gen. Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), if he really was a conspirator, is shown as motivated by opportunism and envy alone. Precious little is given here except a brief journal entry read out loud at the start of the film, but this is more meant to trigger our well-trained reflexes than actually give an argument. Moreover, would not the biblical principle call for some kind of public declaration of protest and demand for change prior to setting a plan of assassination in motion?
A second ethical question calling for some elucidation is whether, given that the goal of killing Hitler were justified, it could further be justified to (a) kill the entire staff present at the meeting along with him, while (b) the bomber saves his own sorry skin by slinking out before the blast. Stauffenberg himself was a regular member of the staff meetings; how did he know that other staff members were not secret “good guys” like himself? Is that not murder? I can see reaching the point of saying, “the whole group is going to have to be sacrificed,” provided he included himself in that group; especially, when one considers that his ongoing presence could very well have guaranteed success, since instead of sliding the briefcase under the table, he could have held it on top of the table or even carried it while positioning himself as closely to Hitler as possible.
Yet another important ethical discussion would center on the oath which Wehrmacht soldiers took to Hitler. The movie broaches this aspect at the very beginning and it resurfaces from time to time, but there is little wrestling with it as an ethical problem. Under what conditions, if any, can an oath be abandoned? Can one really lay claim to another Calvinist principle of the unlawful oath in this instance? And if so, would not then the manful thing be to announce the renunciation in as public a manner as it was originally taken? There is something jesuitical in all this: I have more initial sympathy with the soldiers that stuck to their oath to the end than those that violated it without giving very much of a reason that would have been understood in 1944.
Layered over these questions is the tragic fact that the Allies would not have negotiated anyhow. At issue for the Allies was not A. Hitler, but rather Stalin’s desire to consume Europe, and Britain’s and America’s culpable compliance with that agenda to further their own provincial goals. Germany was facing a consortium of bloody men bent on her annihilation, no matter what she would do. You want to scream at these poor desperate Germans, “which part of ‘unconditional surrender’ do you not understand? Do you have any comprehension of the character of your enemies?” Hitler did, of course.
Indeed, this reflection suggests one way the movie could have been made great. It could have taken the tack “what if the plot had succeeded?” and played it out — shown the Allies continuing to stonewall while continuing to turn the German cities into heaps of stone; shown the Soviets marching through Europe and converting, not just part of Germany but all of it into a large Stalinist camp; and so forth. That would have been a moral reflection worth pondering deeply.