FF47 - Valkyrie

Intro by John Roderick

In the first 65 years or so after the end of World War II there were hardly any war movies about Hitler himself. Fighting Germans and Nazis? Yes, sure, lots! And Hitler would appear sometimes briefly with spittle on his lapels, but no one much ruminated on the Führer's death, real or imagined. Folks weren't quite so into demystifying their heroes or their villains then. All the death and ruin of World War II were noble and justified expenses if Hitler was an all powerful super thug, less so if he's revealed as a fragile feeble teapot atop a timid obsequious house of cards.

Growing up in the 1970s, Hitler was always portrayed in his prime at Nürnburg or in Paris, still a worthy foe that only American ingenuity could counter. These days we love demystifying things, including the idea that Americans saxophones defeated Hitler, and gradually our attention has turned from gawking at Hitler at his most vigorous to stalking him as he unraveled. Maybe there's a certain Schadenfreude to watching him trembling in an amphetamine-induced apoplexy as his world comes crashing down, but that is a paltry comfort. No, I think it does us good simply to reflect on how commonplace he was, how basic, to take away the whiff of supernatural talent, and the better to recognize that it could easily happen again.

But wait! If we demystify him and us, if American can-do-gee-whiz-ism was really just a flanking maneuver and if Hitler was a hollow shell, how exactly did he orchestrate 8.5 million Russian soldiers ground to fertilizer on the eastern front? How did this grey-faced ranter, this racist boob motivate the entire world to orbit his star and sacrifice themselves either for or against his cause in the tens of millions? Answer: He had help. Once we see Hitler and Göbbels and Goering and all the Gers as vainglorious normals, we have to look again at the collaborators, the midwives, the opportunists who made it all possible. And despite all the countries in Europe pushing forward their resistance fighters as exemplars of their fighting spirit and moral integrity, it only amplifies the passive collusion of everyone else, big and small.

Hitler did indeed have muggle magic: He hypnotized people by yelling at them and then brushing his bangs to the side, but that doesn't absolve the susceptible followers eager to taste their enemies blood, nor their commanders who relished the ribbons and the real estate awarded their servitude. And that brings us to the aristocrats, the conservative establishment whom Hitler famously duped during his rise. He threatened that the Communists would teach factory workers about dialectical materialism and no one would want to work at Telefunken anymore.

So the aristocrats helped Hitler take power and they loved all the war making at first, you bet they did! They invaded Poland and France and Czechoslovakia and Libya and Navarone and all the others with pure elation, helm and feathers flapping in the wind. That's why there's this cognitive static in so many war movies where a certain submarine captain or Wehrmacht Lieutenant Colonel appears to be honorable and noble and we struggle with liking them because they're Nazis and we know we have to have no tolerance for Nazis, but aren't they not Nazis? Aren't they just young von Whimples who like riding their war horses over Salesian infantrymen?

I'd like to take this opportunity to reiterate that the Friendly Fire podcast is against Hitler. Anyway, super bummer spoiler alert: Hitler was a bad leader and he ruined everything for these guys. The Aristocrats really had egg on their faces. As Europe burned, they stood there kicking the dirt and mostly following orders right to the end, trying to salvage their dignity. Not because they gave a rat's ass about any Jews or Poles or any of the world's capitals lying in ruins, but only because they were having fun winning and now it was spoiled. Enter Tom Cruise, known widely for his ability to carry out missions that on their surface seem impossible. Tom Cruise's super-fate and charisma is usually enough to accomplish any acting role while also running and riding a motorcycle and he even has time to have a weirdly chaste interaction with a beautiful lady.

But can Cruise make us feel sympathy for a German aristocrat who colluded with the Third Reich and then plotted to assassinate Hitler to take control of the country and end the war on his terms? Well, a contemporary nation of Germany certainly hopes so. They held their noses about Scientology long enough to support the making of this film with all kinds of special dispensations. I mean, it didn't hurt that Klaus von Stauffenberg was both handsome and aristocratic, the spitting image of Cruise.

Colonel Stauffenberg is Wehrmacht-ing around in Tunisia when out of the sky the RAF gives him a cool eyepatch and a missing arm for the rest of the movie. Stauffenberg has cycled back to Berlin where he is recruited into the German resistance by General Olbricht, played by the excellent Bill Nighy after that group tried and failed to blow Hitler up with a trick-bottle of booze. Now Stauffenberg decides to forge a new version of the emergency plan that will allow the resistance to keep the Third Reich's hands off of the levers of power once Hitler is dead, but he needs Hitler's signature on it. So we get a number of cool, tense sequences where he visits the Berghof and the Wolf's Lair and other various Nazi offices and interacts with all the top Nazis, played by different actors than in Downfall and Inglorious Basterds, but still all super gross.

Stauffenberg puts the bomb under the big map table in Hitler's bunker, but the meeting was moved to an airy outbuilding with big breezy windows, which compromises the lethality of the bomb and, spoiler alert, fails to kill Hitler. In Berlin, General Olbricht failed to mobilize the reserve army out of timidity and the coup comes crashing down. In the end they all get firing squatted or commit suicide or whatever and Tom Cruise shouts: "Long live sacred Germany!" as he is executed, which is supposed to inspire us, I guess, except his sacred Germany is also a nationalistic and antisemitic military state, except ruled by princes instead of upstart Austrians.

So do we think this movie is a total turkey? Well, I try not to give it away. But here on Friendly Fire we can even use bad movies to talk about real things and while this film can't absolve Germany of its sins, it can teach us a lesson that we need to hear again and again: That Hitler didn't do it alone. You can serve Germany or the Führer, not both. Today on Friendly Fire: Valkyrie.

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