"We took this challenge before our Lord and our conscience, and
it must be done, because this man, Hitler, he is the ultimate evil."
Claus von Staffenberg
"All that is necessary for the triumph of
evil is that good men do nothing."
Generally attributed to Edmund Burke
During WWII, there were not enough good men with access to Hitler. In all the failed assassination plots, access was the key. Let's be clear here. Evil flourishes while good men do nothing. But any good man has to place the value of his own life lower than the opportunity to succeed. That's the catch. And failure meant a certain outcome and a probable outcome. You would die but if you were really unlucky, the SS would torture you for months before you welcomed the reaper. Yes, there were many close shaves, bombs on planes in brandy bottles too cold to detonate, timings were off and men, as is inevitably the case with some, lose their nerve. Good men are moved to murder evil men. Is that OK? Tick the box. There seems to be one murder of a human being that even devout, Commandment loving zealots would agree would have been a particularly good idea. You can imagine a hasty stone chipped amendment; "Thou shalt not kill... unless you know this bastard's going to kill millions..."
In the 1983 David Cronenberg movie of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, Christopher Walken has the doozy of a moral dilemma. He knows what kind of an apocalyptic future a political candidate will bring about and has the chance to stop that future with an act of murder. From his doctor friend, he seeks the answer and of course he invokes the hypothetical question "What if you could stop Hitler before he rose to power?" I'll always remember Herbert Lom's answer (after reminding us that he's a doctor who has an oath to save lives), "I will have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch." Hitler is way out in front as the prime example of human evil and the barbarous depths to which a human being can sink if sent resolutely south, seduced by an inhuman ideology. As far as I know from some historical research, Hitler had very little to do – practically speaking – with the 'final solution' except for ordering it. He just let loose a few twisted souls and gave them permission to create hell on earth.
If it weren't for a certain Scientologist's (oh, please) interest in playing the man who came the closest to assassinating Hitler, I'm sure Claus von Stauffenberg's story would have stayed trapped between the hard covers of the history books and quietly celebrated at a memorial museum in Germany. There is no doubt. It is a remarkable story. Any act of self sacrifice, for the good of the unmet and unknown, is laudable. Let's face it, Stauffenberg could not have thought for a second he was likely to get away with his crime. Despite the failure of the assassination, Claus von Stauffenberg can be regarded as a good man who risked everything to stop the insanity that was the holocaust. That was the tipping point, proof that the Führer had fallen into madness to further his utopian vision.
This 76 minute documentary, on Stauffenberg's attempt to rid the world of a man whose over-reaching prejudices and whims destroyed untold lives, is a mixture of many styles. Uppermost is the archive material to give detail to the war story that is the broad narrative underpinning the events. John H. Meyer's gravelly voice over parallel parks the documentary into the Discovery Channel slot but I have no evidence it was made for that purpose. It just has all the hallmarks of a 'made to order' documentary and the reason I say this is because I have made to order a good many of them myself.
Tease – hook the viewer with an amazing premise that compels them to keep watching. And cut the living shit out of it. This one bucks that trend at least. Do the best impression you can of their own thumbs and forefingers clicking channels out of unfettered boredom. The template of modern TV – "Make it look like they are actually channel surfing on the same channel..."
Act I – Reiterate (in English, 'repeat'), the premise of the programme and remind the viewers, almost by the second, how extraordinary this story is. Build up to an act closure that has them panting to find out what happens next...
Acts II to Act VI – see Act I.
The irony is that the final act doesn't have to deliver at all because the only concern is the advertising presence between the parts not before or after the programme. So pushing that rather sad and weary model of television production away for the purposes of review, how does Operation Valkyrie stand up.
Well... That was a measured pause, not a judgement. It stands up well but then it has the Stauffenberg story so whatever means the film-makers use to tell the story, they will always have the solid foundations of the actual event. Director, Jean-Pierre Isbouts, uses reconstruction and this almost works if it weren't for the sparse art direction (a plain map on a plain wall that you feel would be festooned with other notes and set dressings) and an almost literal staging. We are asked to believe (and yes, I can believe it) that Stauffenberg was not able to prime both packets of explosives because the Nazi in charge of staff movements was impatient to hurry them on to the briefing hut. Stauffenberg's excuse, to change his shirt, could have been a little better thought out but maybe that's my reading of history and not a criticism of the film.
It's just that the reconstruction of the events looks too much like a 'reconstruction of the events'. I know how absurd that sounds. It doesn't help that there is practically no actuality sound over the reconstructions and sound, as we know, is pretty crucial to a TV programme these days. It's so on the nose. And to help with high camera angles and explanations of Hitler's special place in the woods, we turn to CG. I was convinced I was watching something made in the 80s. The explosion is, frankly, naff. The fact that this show was released only last year makes the CG stuff seem very silly. Either that or they had no budget (show it off on your DVD sleeve as an asset and it better be worth looking at – at least). The rendering of the foliage looked like mistakes some of the time and it is used to chart Sauffenberg's car through the checkpoints and to show you who died in the explosion.
The interviewed experts and in one case in the Extras, the interviewed participant, are all top notch and there is a subtle way their backgrounds are woven in to the fabric of the narrative. For talking heads, it's a neat and classy solution to the TV executive horror of a talking human face on screen. "It's boring, everyone will turn over!" they cry. With the archive material you get a sense that what you are seeing is not what's being talked about (a battle is a battle after all). But the real gold is the colour 16mm home movies that Eva Braun shot of her partner at the time, a certain Herr Hitler. These images are astonishing mostly because WWII exists in the minds of people of my generation, a Sunday afternoon series of black and white newsreels cut together called The World At War.
Having researched quite a bit about WWII recently I was surprised and shocked to find out a further horror perpetrated by this small, unassuming Austrian. Action T4 was an initiative that spanned three years from 1939 and was Hitler's first, terrifying stab into mass murder. This time, doctors were ordered to kill children and adults judged to be 'incurably sick'. Hitler fervently believed in the 'survival of the fittest' and saw it as his duty to make this horribly true. There is evidence that over a quarter of a million people died by Hitler's command. This was before the Holocaust. Evil seems such a small word for the things that man did. It's to the disc's credit that all the info contained is both interesting and entertaining. Despite the truth of the subject matter, assassination attempts are very dramatic by definition. Taking my surface negative comments as mere trifles, Operation: Valkyrie is still a consistently watchable and a worthy addition to anyone's library. I remain curious about Singer and Cruise's version.
The movie, full of 1.33:1 images, is presented in anamorphic 16:9 widescreen and does its compromised best to 'update' the archive material by adding small black lines to the left and right and slightly zooming in on the image. The reconstructions are adequate but the direction is a little loose, a little sparse. This could be lack of budget of course. Documentaries can be cheap but add any reconstructed drama and the costs balloon. Documentary "actuality" does not usually require...
- Make Up
- Art Department
- Specialised Sound Recording
- Multiple takes (docOperation Valkyrie – The Stauffenberg Plot To Kill Hitlerumentaries tend to be extemporaneous)
- Cinematography (actor friendly lighting)
That's a top ten off the top of my head. Feel free to add more. Drama is a different beast altogether.
The sound is a pleasing Dolby Digital surround mix that never gives the subwoofer anything meaty to chew on but the placement of the surround tracks was enveloping in a pleasing way. A brief note about the choice of music that I believe consists mainly of library cues. A slap bass cue covers the tease and there is something supremely odd about that instrument allied to the Swastika. More I cannot say. Chalk and cheese doesn't do it justice.
There are no subtitles in any language.
1. Stauffenberg's Legacy (18' 50")
At the German Resistance Memorial Centre, Dr. Johannes Tuchel and Dr. Ekkehard Klausa inform us how Germany celebrated the few Germans who were brave enough to stand up to Hitler. I'm sure there is a very good artistic reason but the statue commemorating the resistance is that of a slightly over scale naked boy. I'll ponder that. We get a detailed run down of Stauffenberg's career and scenes of the reconstruction are used as well as the cheesy CG. In essence this is the full 76 documentary as told by two men. Detailed, yes. But surely some of this information is bound to be repeated. There's a nice point about young visitors asking themselves, "Under Hitler, what would I have done?" It's a great question and one I ask myself. But as our generation (baby boomers, born in the 60s) is the luckiest one that has ever been, I may never be pushed to see just how brave or cowardly I am.
2. What if Valkyrie had succeeded: A Scholar's Debate (7' 53")
Jean-Pierre Isbouts, director of the main documentary, shows off his sources, authorities on the war and Stauffenberg. They all get the same question at the end of their interviews and their answers are all interesting. Just imagine how many lives – perhaps millions – would have been saved. But this is not a debate per se (which may have been more interesting).
3. Killing Hitler: Assassination attempts on the Führer's life (21' 37")
Stauffenberg's attempt on Hitler's life was by no means the first. Author Roger Moorhouse, writer of "Killing Hitler", takes us through the various attempts on the dictator's life. Each story is compelling. I was shocked there were so many.
4. Lautlingen: An Exclusive Visit to the Stauffenberg Estate (2' 49")
To the refined piano of Erik Satie's Third Gymnopedie, we get a short look at where Stauffenberg was brought up. All very formal.
5. The Eva Braun Films (51' 48")
This is by far and away the most extraordinary Extra. Why? Because we see some of history's most despicable men at a Winter retreat in Bavaria, at rest. Hitler smiles and pets an Alsatian dog. Eva Braun cavorts in spring rivers with nothing on. The whole taken in one massive bite (silent of course) shows a group of privileged people who seem horribly happy to be alive. There is something oddly disconcerting about the images. Eva Braun's role (Hitler's mistress) in the horrors of WWII is hardly shocking. She just chose to be with a man whose warped ideals she must have shared. It's a grudging testament to her loyalty that she chose to commit suicide with her man (one hell of a honeymoon as they were married the day before) but these films were shot in the carefree days at the start of the war and scream affluence. The more you see Hitler as just a small, slight man, children perched on his knee, the more the blood rises. This is the monster of the 20th Century. Part of me wants to climb into that frame and beat the shit out of him.
6. People's Court: Trials of the July 20 Conspirators (4' 00")
Hitler's revenge for the bungled bombing was Draconian. Anyone (that's anyone) who (a) was involved with the Stauffenberg plot, who (b) may have had the slightest doubt of the mastery of the Nazi philosophy and (c), anyone who was judged might become a danger to Hitler were brought to 'trial'. 'Might become', Jesus. How paranoid is that? The sentenced were shot having had no chance to air their reasons (too dangerous for the regime to let good men have their voice). One hundred men were tortured and executed most, of course, having had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.
7. The Boeselager Interview (8' 46")
A bit of a coup, this one, no tortuous play on words intended. The Baron von Boeselager is the last surviving member of Stauffenberg's conspiracy and despite the cheap, library intro music, it's a telling Extra. He delivered the explosives to Stauffenberg. He sadly died last year at the age of 90 two months after granting this interview and after giving Cruise and Singer approval for their Valkyrie movie. His clarity and movement belie a man knocking on his tenth decade. What an extraordinary character and as someone said in a very telling quote, "courage is courage, whatever the uniform."
It's a hell of a story very much fettered by the convention of modern TV documentary. Despite the looseness of the recreations and the cheese of the CG, the story is good enough to keep your attention. Having not seen Mr. Cruise and Mr. Singer's efforts, I'll say that if you want a German hero in the war, then Stauffenberg's your man.