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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Valkyrie (review)

Pulp History

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.

Oh, and I love Eddie Izzard (Igor, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) as a Nazi in on the plot to kill Hitler. It gives his “cake or death” standup routine a whole new application.

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.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Doa766

    for people whose native lenguage is not english is just laugh-out-loud funny how the critics complain about the lack of autentic accents

    they’re not even speaking german!!

    consider that Bruno Ganz had to spends weeks training to capture Hiler unusual german accent on “Downfall” and he was already a native german speaker

    is one thing if they do gladiator in english because it would pointless to do it in latin because most people never heard it being spoken but recent history movies should always be on the character’s original tongue, otherwise is disrespectful, even if the accent were perfect

    nad you think subtitles equals low box office numbers ask mel gibson about it

  • kabul

    Sounds great, this is one of those reviews, were I can almost imagine what the movie is like from what you are saying. I can picture that comic book quality in the movie, from the trailers I have seen. I’m going to watch this on Friday with my mum, can’t wait to see my mom’s reaction, she has no idea what kind of movie we are going to watch. I bet that guy who plays Hitler, what’s his name? David Barden? He’s gonna be called Hitler from here on out, cause that’s going to be his most famous role yet.

  • D

    So… I guess we should expect Tom Cruise and Hitler action figures…

  • He’s gonna be called Hitler from here on out, cause that’s going to be his most famous role yet.

    Well, Alec Guinness played Hitler in the movie Hitler: The Last Ten Days but for some reason, he’s not exactly famous for that role today…

  • bitchen frizzy

    That’s cuz he topped it with OBI_WAN.

    The Force is with him, always.

  • Shadowen

    Yeah. Unless Barden plays the role of the Riddler in the third Batman film or something, this will probably stick with him.

  • Brad

    Heck, before Obi Wan Sir Guinness was also known for comedic roles. I’m inclined to believe the guy was just that good at whatever role he decided to take on, each of which surpassed the last.

    Superb review MaryAnn, even if I wasn’t planning to see this already you would’ve convinced me. Some of your finest writing yet. It’s not often that I read something online that makes me say, emphatically, “YES”. Rock on.

  • halavana

    It’s about time someone made a good movie about operation Valkyrie. Not sure if it will live up to the real thing, but if it shows how good intentions can lead to actions in which everything goes horribly wrong… I suppose everyone knows that none of the heroes get out alive?
    May they continue to rest in peace.
    And thanks for the review, MaryAnn.

  • Victor Plenty

    Even if David Bamber’s work here turns out to be the most memorable portrayal of Hitler ever filmed, he will always be Marcus Tullius Cicero to me.

  • MBI

    I thought I couldn’t want to see this movie more, but this review did it. Best FlickFilosopher review of the year.

  • My stepfather told me last night that he played ping pong with Countess von Stauffenberg and she beat him…Just for that little anecdote, I have to see this film that much more.

  • curefreak

    Wow a hot chick who reads comics and reviews movies.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Saw it this weekend.

    I recommend it to anyone who likes war movies, or suspense novels, or historical dramas. All of the elements are there for wide appeal. The historical names and details are all there, but that’s just icing for history buffs. This movie also plays like a thriller based on a novel.

    Actually, David Barden’s role in this movie is fairly small. He’s crucial in one scene, where the conspirators need his signature on something (that’s not a spoiler), but otherwise, he’s just The Target.

  • Helen WI

    I saw Valkyrie. Really bad and Cruise is awful!

  • MaryAnn

    Can you explain what you thought was “bad”? How was Cruise “awful”?

  • Bill

    There was a great balance in this movie. The sentimentality didn’t seem gratuitous and the heroics oozed just enough bravado. Prequels could be made to address the transition from loyal military officer to resister and conspirator, but “Valkyrie” never tried to be that movie. It was content to briskly and matter-of-factly tell the end of the story. I think this was its main strength. Because of what the audience brings into the theater, there is no need to set the stage. History provides all the gravity and the filmmakers can get on with a great plot. I’d be curious to see what was cut from this movie to produce the final version. Is this what great editing looks like? It was so completely free of tedium.

  • JDRaven

    Mary, agree completely with your review. Comic book may not be the word I’d use, but I don’t know how to say it either – it’s difficult to describe how the movie isn’t burdened by the weight of the subject it portrays. I’ve seen some critics slam Valkyrie for not taking on the whole subject of the Holocaust, etc. but those reviews are wrong-headed. Valkyrie takes on this one particular story, this little slice of the War, and does it very, very well. Proof positive that Hollywood is still capable of producing something worthwhile. This movie was more enjoyable than I could possibly imagine it would be when I heard Tom Cruise would be the lead in it.

    One important thing to note – many professional soldiers in the German Army were not members of the Nazi party and I believe that would include the majority of the conspirators portrayed in the film. The film actually touches on this: the idea that these men believe they are serving Germany and not Hitler, and greatly distrust and despise the SS, Gestapo, and the political higher-ups. This distinction actually seems to have saved some of the non-political “in-the-field” German Army personnel from being executed for war crimes – whereas most non-fighting SS and administrative types were executed or given long sentences in the aftermath of the war. Given what the Nazi regime perpetrated with the assistance of the German Army, one could call call into the question just how important this distinction is (and some historians do question whether the conspirators would have made the attempt on Hitler had they continued to enjoy military victories) – however, this does at least provide an insight into the motivations of the conspirators and how they thought of themselves.

  • Lis

    People complain that:

    a) you already know the ending of the movie cause it’s history
    b) nobody has a German accent.

    If that’s the only bad thing they can say about it hooray. I found it to be an exciting thriller and I thought it was hard to maintain such a good pace. The cast is amazing, the film looks good and there were some moments that were really brilliant.

    I was going to see Benjamin Button but changed my mind at the last minute. I’m glad I did. This was a fun movie.

    If you want your Germans doing outrageous accents then rent something else.

  • HeJü

    Just a quick info: Stauffenberg was no Nazi, he was not a member of the NSDAP.

  • writerguy


    To me, Valkyrie was way too slow-paced to even be labeled as “exciting”..where’s the action we see in other historical films such as “Saving Private Ryan?”

    It was pretty accurate, historically, and I can see the comic-book spin it has and its provocative side, but the banal build-up to a climax only leads to a two-minute attempt to kill Hitler where the explosive goes off, Tom Cruise gets the hell out of there, and Hitler gets a few scratches; and even that isn’t accurate, seeing that according to history Hitler wasn’t even wounded in the smallest way.

    In conclusion, Valkeryie was a thought-provoking, yet average account of an assassination attempt of Adolph Hitler due to the lack of action it fails to generate throughout the rising action of the story, all the way up to the climax.

  • bitchen frizzy

    It’s hardly fair to compare it to “Saving Private Ryan.” SPR was fictional, and it took place on battlefields, so it had opportunity for fire ‘n explosions n’ stuff galore.

    Making “Valkyrie” more like SPR would have required some considerable fictionalization.

    –“…according to history, Hitler wasn’t even wounded in the smallest way.”

    That statement is simply incorrect. It’s a technicality, though, since his injuries were slight and he wasn’t even momentarily disabled.

  • Frenk

    Sadly I must disagree with MJ here. But then most Europeans probably would. “Valkyrie” is not a successful film, and it tanked in Germany because of this.

    Cruise is the biggest problem. The man can sometimes act. But in this film he is simply not up to the task. Von Stauffenberg was a man of mettle, and Cruise is too light a personality to handle the role. Jumping up on the couch, yes, Cruise can do that. Pretend to be an American fighter pilot, yes, that worked.

    But to be an aristocratic hero? No no no.

    Also, as a film “Valkyrie” is resolutely shallow. In this respect I guess MJ’s comic book comparison is accurate, although of course most literate adults recognize that comic book level plot, character, and psychology cannot handle real events of historical importance.

    “300” worked because it turned a fantastic tale from ancient history into… a fantastic tale from ancient history. No real depth was called for or necessary (or provided). “Valkyrie” fails because it gives a remarkable story from recent history the comic book treatment.

  • Mark


    I haven’t seen Valkyrie, and I don’t know the history, and I have no reason to doubt what you say about Cruise and his lack of gravitas. But I do have to make a defense of comic books.

    …comic book level plot, character, and psychology…

    Remember Road To Perdition, Ghost World and (especially) A History of Violence? All of those (and many others) are adaptations of comic books. I don’t think any of them are wanting for plot, character, or psychology. While it’s a convenient stereotype to label comics as simplistic and shallow, it isn’t necessarily so. And it’s certainly possible for a comic book to have more depth, subtlety, and layers of meaning than can adequately be expressed in a film adaptation (as, in my opinion, Watchmen aptly demonstrates).

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