Saturday, 24 January 2009

"Valkyrie" - A Historian's Review

"Valkyrie", Tom Cruise, History vs Entertainment...

Well, the drama surrounding the film has finally come to an end. We can stop speculating, the media can stop their petty sniping, and the talking heads can stop their carping - the film is out and we can all go and see it and make our own minds up.

I have to say it was with some trepidation that I walked into a press screening of "Valkyrie" last week. Though I dearly wanted the film to be good, I was prepared for it to be less than that.

Yet, as I watched, I kept waiting for the moment when my historian's sensibilities would be mortally offended; when I would see history being traduced for the sake of 'entertainment', when I would involuntarily 'tut', shake my head disappointedly and make for the door. Except it didn't come...

From a strict historian's point of view, at least, the film has little to complain about. The story has not been slaughtered on the altar of cinema, sacrificed to dumbed-down film-making... Whisper it quietly - but historically-speaking - "Valkyrie" is pretty good.

Sure, there are some mistakes - the SS HQ in the film was preposterous, what's wrong with Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, anyway!? - and it was Schlabrendorff who retrieved the brandy-bottle bomb, not Tresckow - and there was some inevitable straigtening of the complex narrative for the sake of simplicity - but overall, there was really nothing much for this historian to get upset about.

Surprisingly, though, the film's shortcomings lay rather in the story-telling, the characterisation and the suspense - indeed, in the very things that most people would have assumed would have been the strong suits from a team such as Tom Cruise and director Bryan Singer.

In my opinion, Stauffenberg's character was far too one-dimensional, without much explanation of the development of his 'treason' or his motives for it. His vacillating co-conspirators were much better portrayed - mostly by a cohort of British actors; Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy - but they sadly could not infect Cruise with any of their depth, nuance or characterisation.

Also, the film sagged a bit in the middle sections - not only in the run up to the attempt, but also in the rather overlong period thereafter, which was (understandably perhaps) squeezed for every bit of dramatic tension, but fundamentally failed to deliver. Stauffenberg's 'love interest', too - the exquisite Carice van Houten as Nina - was rather a cul-de-sac, a side-story tagged on perhaps to dilute the overwhelming whiff of cordite, treachery and testosterone.

On the whole, "Valkyrie" is a solid 3 stars; its worth a watch, and is good entertainment, but maybe not quite good enough to silence the critics. It is also surprising, perhaps, to conclude that history was not the primary casualty of this particular assassination attempt, rather it was the film-makers art that proved to be the weakest link ... the malfunctioning fuse ... the oak table leg...

By the way - if you want some further reading on this subject, I would suggest, my book, "Killing Hitler" -

And the new book by my friend and colleague, Nigel Jones, "Countdown to Valkyrie" -


robin holland said...

dear sir,

i am wondering what you may know about col. hans oster? my client believes he is a descendant of col. oster, and is looking to trace his genealogy. i'm afraid i don't know where to start.

do you have any information?

historian at large said...


I am not an expert in genealogical research in Germany, but I am sure Hans Oster's known biographical details will provide some starting point. Born in Dresden in 1887, he must have some archival 'echo' in the central archive of Saxony in Dresden, so that's where I would start. Then, I would check your client's details and see if there is any tally. Good luck!