Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s not exactly a Hogan’s Heroes level of diminution, but there’s something honestly comic-book-esque about Valkyrie. I mean that in a good way, because I adore what director Bryan Singer has done to take stuff that had been considered pulpy prior and turn it intense and serious — like with his X-Men movies: hello, adamantine-clawed superman as brooding anti-mensch. But Singer has done the opposite, too, returned us to the pulp roots of genres we’d forgotten had ’em: The Usual Suspects is more like something out of a cheap, tawdry magazine from the 1930s than it is like any other crime thriller since the 1950s.
And so there’s something in his Valkyrie — written by Usual Suspects scripter Christopher McQuarrie (with first-timer Nathan Alexander) — that feels, oddly, like it’s got both things happening at the same time: it makes pulpy something that never was much so before, and at the same time makes you feel like it’s taken seriously for the first time something that’s been pulpy all along. It sounds contradictory, but hear me out.
Singer has explored before, in Apt Pupil, the verboten allure of Nazism: not the genocide and oppression, necessarily (I’m not talking about the scary subsubculture that reveres that aspect — there’s something majorly wrong with those people), but the fuckin’ stylish uniforms and the snapped salutes and, well, the trappings that shout drama and style. Don’t yell at me: in real life, I’d have been that chick from Black Book, doing absolutely whatever I could to bring the bastards down, and gleefully so. But in the movies… surely it’s because of the appalling appeal of the Nazis that they endure in fictional film at all. If they hadn’t been real, some comic-book writer-and-artist team would have had to invent them, and then gone on to piss themselves in delight at their own cleverness: Can you believe how ridiculously evil they are? they’d be applauding themselves, or how amazing they look while being so ridiculously evil? I mean, aren’t the Nazis the source of the idea that all villains in all self-respecting superhero and/or science fiction stories must looks damn fabulous?
Maybe it’s that it would be nice to be able to think of the Nazis as merely having sprung from the head of some demented geek, and not having actually existed at all.
But so here we have the comic-book — and I mean that in a good way, the let’s-take-it-serious-comic-book — story of how, hey! turns out some of the Nazis weren’t so bad after all, and tried to fix things once things got to a really really bad low. You want to wonder, didn’t any of these guys realize before, you know, 19-freakin’-43 that Hitler was bad news, but that’s just part of the conceit you have to accept, just like how kryptonite can take out Clark Kent, don’t worry if it doesn’t make any sense. You want to wonder: Tom Cruise with an eyepatch? Really? How cliché is that? But it’s cool, it’s fine, it kinda tickles, this turning upside down of the convention of the bad guy with an eyepatch. I mean, he is a bad guy, he’s a Nazi, for pete’s sake, but he’s a good Nazi.
Oy, my head is spinning. Just like how the idea that Bruce Wayne is a psychopath and a superhero at the same time makes me feel.
I love how Singer plays the whole damn thing like the greatest suspense comic-book story ever told, the uberevil Hitler (David Bamber: Miss Potter, I Capture the Castle) all hidden in shadows — he could be stroking a white cat, almost, but I guess Singer wanted to stick to as much actual fact as possible, so he’s stroking a German shepherd instead. There’s long bits that unfurl almost like a silent movie — or, you know, as a comic book that’s all quiet panels, no speech balloons at all — such as the opening sequence in which a band of Nazi officers led by Kenneth Branagh (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rabbit-Proof Fence) try to blow up Hitler and futz it up. I mean, honestly and sincerely: it’s great. It’s truly suspenseful. We know Hitler doesn’t get killed by his own commanders who sneak a bomb onto his plane in Eastern Russia — just like we know that Spider-man will never be defeated by Willem Dafoe — but it’s still damn suspenseful. And we even know that Hitler will not be killed by the next plot to kill him, the one that Tom Cruise (Tropic Thunder, Lions for Lambs) joins, but… damn: As Singer depicts it, they come so tantalizingly close that you can almost taste it, almost taste the alternate-universe special issue to come in which they do succeed and the entire subsequent history of humanity changes.
I love how the screenwriters and Singer suggest that almost anyone with an officer’s commission was ready to move against Hitler, wanted in on whatever plot to wipe him out was in the works. I love the catchphrases: “Himmler’s not at the briefing” (I’m gonna use that anytime I want to do something I reluctantly promised not to do) and “There is no problem that can’t be solved with a suitable application of explosives.” Was the Nazi who utters that here actually the first person to say this? Or has the film just appropriated something that sprang from elsewhere (probably a comic book) as its own? Either way, it speaks to the twisty, wibbly-wobbly, Moebius-strippy universe of pulpy pop culture we wade in.
I’m truly not being facetious: I really, really like this movie because it’s not quite like any Nazi movie we’ve seen before. It’s got the philosophical aspect that we expect from our comic book movies these days — what constitutes treason? what constitutes patriotism? why is the fine line between them so tricky? and why do I feel compelled to ask the question in a Nigel Tufnel accent? And it’s walking that philosophical line with a sensitivity and an affection for the simultaneous ridiculousness of it and the deep depth of it. It’s a comic-book movie about Nazis that doesn’t not treat it all seriously. It’s exciting and provocative and preposterous all at once. If it wasn’t true, we’d never believe it, and we almost don’t even though it is true. And that’s fine.