Friday, September 25, 2009

All Hitler, All the Time!

Below are reviews of three films I've seen in the past year which, coincidentally, all featured Adolf Hitler as a common thread...

Valkyrie

While competently serviceable and straightforward, Valkyrie provides just enough detail to ground the story and make it fascinating in a "you are there" sort of way, but not enough to fully engage you or to truly feel the tragedy of the lost opportunity or of the people who sacrificed their lives trying to stop Hitler.

Tom Cruise plays Claus von Stauffenberg, the real-life German army officer who participated in an assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944 during World War II.

The film wastes little time in getting to the task at hand: soon after the opening of the film (in which we perfunctorily learn of von Stauffenberg's disenchantment with Hitler and the Nazi regime), he joins a conspiracy of German politicians and military officers who are planning to overthrow der Fuhrer. With typical German efficiency, the group plots to use the emergency succession plan already in place—codenamed "Valkyrie"—for its own ends: once Hitler is eliminated, the group will put Valkyrie in motion, and use it to take control of the government and German military, and sue for peace.

Most war movies of this kind usually follow a tried-but-true formula: the audience is introduced to the cast of characters, then watches them bond and carry out the mission.

In contrast, Valkyrie gets to the assassination attempt fairly quickly. And while a few sequences focus on some of the conspirators quietly recruiting others to assist them (or at least not stand in their way), the film doesn't linger too much on the planning or disagreements over the assassination plan before proceeding to the task at hand.

In fact, the primary focus of the story around which the film's suspense is built centers on the gradual unraveling of the plot: while some of the conspirators dithered out of uncertainty that the assassination attempt actually succeeded, others pushed to move quickly fearing they would lose the moment.

In the end, of course, Hitler survived. While the film uses the conspirators' uncertainty as a way to create suspense, since the audience knows historically that Hitler survived, the real tension in the last part of the film comes from waiting for the whole house of cards to come crashing down on the plotters.

It is this latter part of the film, in fact, that is most effective. Ultimately, however, while certainly competently done, the movie doesn't seem to have anything more on its mind than telling its story. While it has a sense of style, and captures time and place well, given the subject matter, it's surprisingly low key.

To give the film some additional gravitas, the filmmakers surround star Tom Cruise with an ensemble of respected British actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, and Eddie Izzard. While they all deliver, at the same time, I often thought that the script wasn't as smart as it liked to believe!

The Night of the Generals
While on this subject, I thought this would be an opportune time to review a fascinating film called The Night of the Generals, in which the attempt to assassinate Hitler portrayed in Valkyrie plays a crucial role.

Released in 1967, the film stars Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif (first paired together in Lawrence of Arabia), and is best described as a cross between a World War II drama and a Jack the Ripper murder mystery. (It reportedly also was the last film to face trouble with the Production Code Administration, before the introduction of the Motion Picture Association of America's G through X rating system the following year.)

Sharif plays a "good" German army officer who is investigating a series of prostitute murders, which he believes is being committed by a senior member of the German army staff. O'Toole is one of the generals who is a suspect, along with actors Donald Pleasance and Charles Grey. (Other prominent actors in the film include Tom Courtenay, Philippe Noiret, and Christopher Plummer as General Erwin Rommel.) The film is told in flashback after the war, from the point of view of a French police detective who had befriended Sharif's character during the investigation and wants to know what happened both to Sharif's character (who did not survive the war) and the murder inquiry.

The "Valkyrie" assassination plot plays a side but pivotal role in The Night of the Generals, and is actually portrayed in the movie. Interestingly, von Stauffenberg is played by a much older actor than Cruise—I was surprised to discover, however, that the real-life von Stauffenberg was much closer in age and looks to Cruise than to the actor portraying him in Generals!

While contrasting the film to Valkyrie may not be a fair comparison, ironically, the Night of the Generals presents a much wider canvas, and is much more epic in scope and drama. While presenting a character who embodies both Nazism and psychotic tendencies is hardly an original conceit, it was engrossing to watch a film like this that is able to elevate the story and subject matter by successfuly entwining a murder mystery with actual historical events. And, of course, O'Toole is always a delight when given a character who chews up the scenery.

I had minor quibbles with the ending of the film—which perhaps is a reflection of the changing meaning of "honor"—but nevertheless, the Night of the Generals is a movie with rather epic ambitions that is beautifully shot, and had the advantage of having been filmed on location in Europe (Paris is prominent in the film).

To see a clip of this film and actor Peter O'Toole in their awesome glory, check out this nifty clip from the TCM website. Another clip can be found here, featuring the sequence (starting at about 4:58 minutes into the extended clip) that instantly pulled me into the movie when I stumbled across it on TCM. Finally, below is a trailer of the film.



Downfall
One more "Hitler film": back in 2008, a German-language film, Downfall (der Uturang in the original German), was released in the U.S. The movie caused some minor controversy in Germany because there are strict rules about the portrayal of Nazis and Hitler in the country, and worldwide because of the fear that a film that delved into the personality and private life of Hitler would somehow "humanize" him. (Downfall also gained some notoriety on the Web because people used a clip from the film for some very funny mashups of Hitler ranting about various topics.)

Downfall covers the final weeks of Hitler in his bunker as Germany and Berlin collapses around him at the end of World War II. The story is ostensibly told from the point of view of his secretary, Traudl Junge.

At the end of the '90s, the real-life Junge released a memoir about her experience as Hitler's secretary, which was followed by a well known documentary about her. In addition to providing a fascinating glimpse into the private Hitler, the book documents her journey that began with the excitement and pride of being hired as der Fuhrer's secretary, to the discovery of his war crimes and dealing with her subsequent guilt after the war. It seems clear that trying to reconcile the man she admitted was one of the "best bosses" she ever had with the fact that he also is one of mankind's greatest monsters was a difficult process.

The film cleverly opens up the story outside the bunker, primarily by focusing on several key characters who represent the wide range of experiences of the German people at the end of the war—from the ordinary citizens, to children, to war-weary soldiers, to the true believers—and continuing to follow their stories throughout the film. The story is both a great study of people under tremendous strain, as well as of the warped psychology of blind devotion and the cult of personality.

At the heart of it, of course, is the figure of Adolf Hitler, portrayed by Bruno Ganz. The best I can say about Ganz's performance is that he is a marvel—from the moment he appears onscreen, you never think of him as an actor portraying Hitler but rather you immediately accept him in the role. Most actors cast in the role—including the actor in Valkyrie—never manage to truly project any presence in the role.

Yes, Hitler is "humanized" in that he is in this film—what he always has been—a human being. By the same token, you do get flashes of his madness—or at least his skewed view of life—that made him the monster he is. In one key scene, played quietly, Hitler talks about why he believes compassion is an unnatural emotion and a weakness; his disdain for human life and of even the well being of the German civilians who he believes do not deserve to survive without him reveal the height of perverse narcissm.

Downfall is an outstanding film that manages to literally capture the "bunker mentality" of Hitler and his circle of diehard followers in the final weeks of the war, while also opening up the story to portray the wider tragedy of the suffering he brought to the German people.

Below are a couple of pretty good mashups posted online featuring the same clip from Downfall.





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