Time for heroes


World War II is all over the cinemas these days, with a slew of recent films attempting to go against the grain of received wisdom, focusing on the exceptions, not the rule. Thus we have Jews who fought back fiercely against the Nazis (“Defiance”), Wehrmacht officers who opposed Hitler (“Valkyrie”), and concentration-camp guards who were hot and had a conscience (“The Reader”).

“The Reader” earned an Oscar for Kate Winslet — though her performance in Stephen Daldry’s wan weepie was hardly her best — but the actress must wince every time that YouTube clip of her from 2005 on the British sitcom “Extras” gets a hit. Quote: “I’ve noticed if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar.” She was joking, but I doubt the filmmakers were.

“Valkyrie,” which features Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who came this close to blowing up the Fuhrer with a briefcase bomb, went home empty- handed on Oscar night. Obviously, the “good German” story was only good once (“Schindler’s List,” a multiple Oscar-winner).

Or maybe it was because you should never star in a film wearing an eye patch unless you’re playing a pirate.

Director Bryan Singer
Run Time 120 minutes
Language English, German

Nay-sayers said Cruise as a Nazi would never sell, that there’s no suspense in a plot everyone knows ended in failure. Nevertheless, the film is approaching the $200-million mark at the box office, which isn’t exactly chump change. Credit is due to director Bryan Singer, who’s tapping back into the suspenseful style he mastered with “The Usual Suspects” way back in 1995 before he went all superhero on us (“X-Men,” “Superman Returns”). Singer does his best to fashion a taut thriller that puts us in the historical moment, making us hope against hope that the colonel can pull it off.

Working against Singer, though, is the fact that he has but two hours to outline a labyrinthine conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime, featuring a large number of figures who are only sketchily introduced; ever heard of generals Friedrich Fromm or Ludwig Beck, or why they were important? One gets the feeling a TV miniseries (a la “Rome”) would be needed to properly clue us in.

The film begins in 1943, when Stauffenberg is in Tunisia with the Afrika Corps, where he will lose an eye and most of one arm in an Allied air attack. Already, after the German defeat at Stalingrad and rumors of S.S. atrocities on a mass scale, there are rumblings within the officer corps.

Upon his recovery, Stauffenberg is contacted by Maj. Gen. Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) and Gen. Olbricht (Bill Nighy), who are part of a group of officers planning a coup. As Tresckow, a courageous Eastern-front veteran, puts it: “We have to show the world that not all of us were like him.” Olbricht and others seem plagued by caution, though, and with good reason: Hitler’s Gestapo offered a gruesome death to any who opposed the Fuhrer.

The plotters’ idea is to kill Hitler, take over the government and cut a peace deal with the Allies before Hitler’s disastrous policies bring Germany to utter ruin. Key to the plan is Operation Valkyrie, a Fuhrer-approved contingency plan to use the domestic Reserve Army to put down any civil unrest or uprising within Germany. Stauffenberg is promoted to chief of staff of the Reserve Army, where he plans to hijack Valkyrie and use it to arrest key S.S. figures after Hitler is killed. But how to whack Adolf?

Singer is good at building a thriller around the “how” part of the plot, but less so at the “why.” A few throwaway lines about the Holocaust, and officers’ concerns about Germany’s honor are all we get. Stauffenberg is portrayed by Cruise with a strong-jawed sense of justice, but what is it that made him, and other officers, turn against their leader? There are many issues here: Stauffenberg’s deeply held Christianity being one, the aristocratic officer class’ distrust of the lumpen-prole usurper Hitler being another. Frustration with the dictators’ constant micromanaging of the war, and his disastrous no-retreat policies (which led to the encirclement at Stalingrad), clearly loomed as large as any moral concerns.

But Singer understands why it is the public keeps going to see World War II films: moral clarity. All films about the Nazis ask us to imagine the ultimate evil, and how we’d respond to it. Would we give up and become a victim, sent to the camps? Or possibly end up roped into complicity with evil, a cog in its monstrous machine?

Hollywood being Hollywood, it resolutely searches for examples of people who did the right thing, the Oskar Schindlers and Claus von Stauffenbergs. Myself, I have less faith in humanity, and would offer Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” (1970) or Lina Wetrtmuller’s “Seven Beauties” (1975) as more sobering views of the ease with which average people can adapt to fascism.