There is only one tricksy element to Bryan Singer’s low-key, names-places-dates-and-exact-times account of the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate and supplant Adolf Hitler in 1944. After the bomb goes off under a table in a hut where the fuhrer and advisors are gathered over military maps, and Singer has allowed us a glimpse of what seems to be much damage, the plotters proceed under the assumption that their scheme has been a success and put Operation Valkyrie – the military take-over of Berlin – into action. Eventually, it turns out that Hitler has escaped and his voice on the phone is enough to convince a key officer (Thomas Kretschmann) to shut down the operation and move against Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) and his fractious allies. The tricksy bit is that, after the bomb goes off, the film never shows Hitler again – which raises the slim possibility that the hero (and casting Cruise makes the one-eyed, one-handed officer a hero) has achieved his goal, but some trickery or supernatural element has reversed the effect. The comical detail that the main injury Hitler suffered in the explosion was that his trousers were blown off is omitted, since this is an earnest, gloomy picture that has little room for the messiness of real life, even as it keeps repeating the military mantra that no battle goes according to plan.
The current high water mark of inside-the-bunker movies is Downfall (from which Christian Berkel is recruited), which makes this seem like a throwback to Night of the Generals as an American star, distinguished Brits doing slight accents (Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hollander, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson) and authentic Germans acting in English parade in smart uniforms, whispering among themselves, cringing under forests of swastika flags and argue as to their exact course of action. This even has that clipped, urgent, dour feel of 1960s/70s ‘serious’ war films, back before Raiders of the Lost Ark made killing Nazis seem fun again. Cruise heils with his missing hand when ordered to salute and bristles with Germanic indignation, but there’s surprisingly little special pleading – these men are staging a coup because Hitler is losing the war, and the mandatory mention of Nazi atrocities seems less a motivation than the fact that the fuhrer is a low-class Austrian with little sense of military honour.
As with Klaus Maria Brandauer’s pre-war set Seven Minutes, the fact that the film is about a plot to kill Hitler – rather than, say, Mother Theresa – allows the audience to sympathise with activities which would be evil in another context: we get the how-to of a political assassination (remember to take pliers to pinch the acid fuse) and groan when circumstances thwart the effectiveness of the plan (if, as scheduled, the meeting had been in a bunker, the bomb would have killed everyone – but the weather was nice so it was held somewhere airier, and the blast dissipated). Singer, oddly, keeps coming back to WWII – Ian McKellen played a Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil and a holocaust survivor in X-Men. If Valkyrie has a problem, it’s that dramatically its book is closed before it starts – not only do we know these men fail, we know what will happen to them. The only suspense opportunity is a trumped-up thread about whether Mrs von Stauffenberg (Carice Houten, of Black Book, underused) and her children will escape the mass executions and suicides which wipe out all the plotters, from committed generals von Tresckow (Branagh) and Beck (Stamp) to the fecklessly wavering Fromm (Wilkinson) and the weak-at-a-crucial-moment Olbricht (Nighy). It’s a dry, rather cerebral picture, engrossing but rather resistable – sort of like a Mission: IMPOSSIBLE episode in which the IMF don’t depose the dictator.