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Valkyrie: Anatomy of a coup

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COMMENTS

23 February 2010 09:24

The unlikely vision of Tom Cruise in a World War II German Army uniform seems to have put a lot of people off seeing Valkyrie, about the failed plot to kill Hitler in 1944. Having just caught up with the film on DVD at the weekend, I think those people should reconsider.

Cruise is believable, there's an excellent supporting cast, and unlike so many modern thrillers, the pacing is just about perfect – there's no slack in the film. What's more, Valkyrie pulls off the unlikely feat of creating tension despite the fact that we know perfectly well how the event is going to end.

I know there was criticism too about the historical accuracy of the film, and although I'm not qualified to comment on that, to me the one weakness of the film is that it fails to portray the feeling in Germany (or at least, in Berlin) in those dark years, when seemingly everyone but Hitler knew the war was lost. The action sticks closely and rather clinically to the assassination plotters; there's none of the 'last days of Rome' style desperation and fatalism that was portrayed so effectively in Downfall.

But the focus on the assassination plot is also Valkyrie's strength. Here I'll pause to say that there are some spoilers ahead, so don't click on the 'Read more' button if you don't want to know the details of the film.

The 20 July plot was about much more than just killing Hitler – his death was just a means to launching a coup that would oust the Nazis and allow a new government to sue for peace with the allies. What Valkyrie portrays, then, is a constitutional battle; it is really an anatomy of a coup, and in that sense it functions as a rather fine tutorial on political science.

For me, the film reinforced the underappreciated role of authority in political activity. Particularly in the international relations sphere, political thinkers tend to be pre-occupied with power, but as I've argued previously on The Interperter, authority matters too. To maintain his rule when the coup was attempted, it wasn't enough for Hitler to command Germany's divisions, because the coup was not aimed at Hitler's power in such a direct way. In fact, Hitler's power, in the military sense, was useless.

Instead, the plotters tried to manufacture a sense that the Nazis were no longer in charge. Their use of power (in the form of the army reservists who briefly took command of government buildings) was an important part of this process, but in the end, what they tried to pull off was a kind of confidence trick – they had to convince enough people in critical positions in the government that Hitler was dead and that the Nazis no longer carried any authority.

The fact that Hitler had survived the assassination attempt was immaterial so long as he could not demonstrate his authority. It was only when communications were re-established with the Wolf’s Lair, allowing Hitler to talk first to key figures in Berlin and then to make a radio broadcast, that the plot fizzled out.