Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cinema 2008: WWII thriller

With "Valkyrie" from 2009, director Brian Singer creates a first-rate suspense thriller. Unfailing cinematic technique connects with the viewer from the very beginning. Tom Cruise is intense and unwavering in his portrayal of Colonel Claus Count von Stauffenberg, in that rarest of roles: a war hero in a Nazi uniform.

"Valkyrie" is based on real events. Stauffenberg led an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler during the waning months of World War II. Whereas that particular coup attempt may be unfamiliar to most Americans, surely it is no spoiler to reveal the plot's ultimate outcome.

The tale of a failed coup certainly must have given Hollywood producers pause. Would audiences even watch a movie where the outcome can never be in doubt? And it is not a happy ending to boot.

Not to worry. "Valkyrie" has the breadth and production values of a blockbuster and the attention to detail that touches viewers deeply. In an early scene, Stauffenberg records his secret thoughts about the war, and the camera lingers on a close-up of his face and in particular his left eye. While that window to his soul would be lost to enemy fire, the soul would not. During an air attack, as Stauffenberg struggles to bring a wounded man and himself to safety he squarely faces down death. The sincerity and the bravery of the man are firmly established.

Later the intense tenderness in a hospital scene, where Nina von Stauffenberg (Carice van Houten) visits her wounded husband, adds another dimension to the hero, his love of family.

When Stauffenberg meets with conspirators in a cathedral, the camera tilts up to reveal the bright sky through the bombed-out roof of the church. Besides adding a graphic reminder of the reality of Germany in the final years of World War II, the scene provides an image for the transparency of man's deeds before the Almighty.

In another scene, Stauffenberg is home enjoying the antics of his children while Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" plays on the Victrola. When an Allied air raid forces the family to seek shelter in the cellar, the bombs exploding nearby shake the house on its foundation and cause the record to skip back to the beginning notes of that inspirational operatic score. In another example of great filmmaking, Stauffenberg's final determination to take down Hitler is conveyed aurally through that reprise.

The pace of "Valkyrie" is unerring. As the suspense continues to build, Singer adds a lyrical scene in which Stauffenberg bids his wife farewell. Like the vision scenes from "Gladiator," where Maximus walks through the wheat field toward his home, these visuals layer additional emotion.

There are many examples of the filmmaker's art in "Valkyrie." A high-angle shot of Stauffenberg entering Hitler's bunker at the Wolf's Lair emphasizes the precarious nature of our hero's task. In one particularly powerful scene, when a desk-riding general demands the Nazi salute, Stauffenberg responds with basic-training bravado — but instead of a raised hand only a scarred stub protrudes from the wounded soldier’s sleeve.

Throughout the film we see the prominence of the swastika and the Fuehrer's portrait. Those at times troubling visuals are used to emphasize the mesmerizing hold Hitler had on Germany.

When Stauffenberg forges ahead with the plan to take control of Berlin, even though he has no confirmation of Hitler's death, Cruise's voice breaks as his character avers, "The Fuehrer is dead." It provides both a realistic touch and a clue to Stauffenberg's own uncertainty.

Finally, brief scenes of the improvised trials of some of the conspirators depict a presiding judge who acts more like a jester than a justice. While that portrayal may confuse viewers unfamiliar with the levels of official insanity within the Third Reich, rest assured that it is quite a realistic touch.

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