Monday, January 5, 2009
They Died With Their Swastikas On
Like all film noir caper movies, the tragic end of Valkyrie is a foregone conclusion –- the meticulous preparation will be undermined by the unpredictable; at least one member of the gang will be revealed as craven and weak, and use his cowardice as a shield and his vacillation like a bullying sword; and our hero will meet a pitiful but noble demise. Which is why Bryan (The Usual Suspects) Singer is the perfect director on paper for Valkyrie. Instead of a heist gone wrong, it’s a murder and a coup gone wrong. And like all movies where the ending is pre-ordained, it’s not the building that’s important, it’s the nuts and bolts of the architecture –- the way it’s supposed to be constructed as opposed to the way it gets built, because no matter how it gets built it will always, always, come tumbling down on its creators, crushing them all.
Singer gets all that, but he doesn’t go far enough. In movies like this, the gap between the plan and its execution is what creates a metaphysical tension (man proposes. God disposes), but there also has to be a lower human level of tension –- the melodrama of cops versus robbers, patsies versus traitors, or the robbers versus each other –- something that adds the human to the mechanical, like beads of sweat on a robot. That kind of sweat is the one thing that’s missing here, which is supremely bizarre when you consider that the villain of the movie is the real world equivalent of Sauron, a man who survives a fucking suitcase bomb, for Chrissakes, and yet he’s not used as the villain in a way that opposes him to the hero. The more screen time Hitler has opposing von Stauffenberg, the bigger von Stauffenberg is when he tries and fails to beat him. How much more dramatic would be this failure if, every time we see a shot of Tom Cruise on the phones rallying support, we cut to Hitler on his set of phones turning that support back into obedience. As it stands now, when the coup falls apart, von Stauffenberg isn’t defeated by Hitler, he’s defeated by the phone company.
And yes, you’re constrained by history to be accurate about what happened, but focus is always a choice within the factual –- sticking with the conspirators in their command center as they realize they’ve failed is one way of looking at what happened; cutting back and forth between the conspirators and the people they’re trying to overthrow is another way. A melodramatic way, perhaps, but I think if Singer was directing this as a struggle between Professor X and Magneto, he would have cross-cut between the two of them, and not kept the camera locked down in one room of the X-Mansion.
On the flip side, adherence to history gives a filmmaker the opportunity to sound a few grace notes which will echo in the ears of those who know their stuff, and Singer does this in at least two places, both near the end. One is the dramatization of documentary footage of the post-conspiracy trial, where defendants were humiliated by a snarling, sarcastic judge who ordered them all to be dressed in pants a size too large and then took their belts away, so that they had to spend the entire trial with one hand holding up their trousers. (Where and when did I ever see this? No idea. Some documentary about Hitler, probably; maybe even a documentary about von Stauffenberg.) And there in the film is the defendant addressing the court as he’s holding his pants up, and that over-the-top judge ridiculing him (and the moment I saw him, I flashed on the original black-and-white trial footage –- about which more later).
The other nod is to the Holy Grail of Hitlerian memorabilia. It is a known fact that, when the conspirators were garroted with wire nooses and hung on meathooks, Hitler ordered the executions to be filmed, so that he could watch the proceedings any time he wanted, the way you or I would watch a couple of Law and Order reruns. The film has vanished from history, but in that brief shot where Singer recreates the executions, you can see the camera and the cameraman on screen right as Singer pans to the next prisoner to be garroted.
But geekish thrills do not a great movie make, and this is not a great movie. Good? Yes. Good in a very old-fashioned way, a very 40’s Warner Brothers old-fashioned way. I kept thinking while I was watching it that Valkyrie would be a lot more truthful if it was filmed in black and white, because that’s how we see World War II, through the lens of Hollywood and contemporary documentary footage (something Stephen Soderbergh realized when he turned The Good German into a two-hour jazz riff on black-and-white war movies).
And in a sense, it already is a black and white movie from the 40’s. All the actors use their real accents, just like they would if Michael Curtiz were directing. Which prompts another geekish thrill: because the conspirators are all played by Brits, the movie is like a metaphor for the Battle of Britain. It’s the Brits who are trying to overthrow Hitler, not the Germans. So does that mean that all good Germans are British at heart? And what would Michael Curtiz make of that? No –- wait -- not Curtiz -- Raoul Walsh. Why Raoul Walsh? Duh:
(That’s Walsh on the right. He lost his eye in the 20’s when a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of his car.)
So yes –- this could totally be a 40’s Warner Brothers movie, with the conspirators as the modern equivalent of Claude Rains and James Mason (co-starring Sydney Greenstreet as Field Marshal Keitel and Peter Lorre as Goebbels).
But who would play von Stauffenberg? It wouldn’t be a great actor. It’d be the star, like Cruise. The hero everybody follows, the leader everybody looks to. Somebody handsome. Somebody dashing. And when they all die in the end, he’s the last one to fall. But his death will not be in vain. It can’t be. He’s the hero. He may not be able to hold an acting candle to the lowliest Brit in the cast, but he doesn’t have to. He’s the star.
Which is why, when people ask me what I think of Valkyrie, I say: “It’s a really good Errol Flynn movie.”