Cruising for Doppelgangers

Your obd’t svt. unleashed her inner Phantom German last night and treated herself to the latest Hollywood attempt to do justice to German history. It wasn’t bad, once you come to terms with the realization that Tom Cruise might be able to act his way out of a paper bag, if it was wet.

I’ve seen leading men out-acted by their leading ladies or their supporting sidekick actors; it’s rough when Cruise, as Graf Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg — the man who came closest to assassinating Hitler — gets upstaged by the bit actress whose only job is to tell him that she can’t get through to the Frau Grafin in Bamberg because the phone lines are bombed out.

Once you sigh and accept this, here is what you get:

(1) A creepily uncanny resemblance between Cruise and the real von Stauffenberg:

tom_cruise_valkyrie_movie_image_l(2) Refreshingly low-key movie Nazis, and a righteously tired, horsehair-and-Bakelite period feel produced by meticulous attention to sets, costuming and props;

(3) Little flashes of brilliance in a generally competent script — von Stauffenberg’s ironic heel-clicking Hitler salute with his handless right arm is unforgettable, even if it deserved better framing on camera;

(4) Pacing and directing that keeps you distracted from your sore ass, or maybe that’s only a Sledpress issue since I can’t sit still for five minutes in most circumstances without feeling like I’m turning to stone, already;

(5) A grasp — hard to get even from well written historical accounts — of the scope of Operation Valkyrie, the temporarily implemented lockdown plan that was originally intended to suppress uprisings or lawlessness inside Germany’s borders. Imagine troops pouring by the hundreds from the military barracks around the nation’s  capital — I have US National Guard headquarters up the street, so it hit home — to slap up barbwire barriers and arrest Cabinet-level officials.

Least wanted movie cliches: camera barreling straight down on a Victrola recording of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie” during a bombing in Wannsee; angelic innocent flax-haired German child sleeping as her father mulls the consequences to his family of committing high treason; perfect 1940’s wifey in impeccable fashion turnout. Forgodsake people, in wartime yet, wasn’t anyone dressing down?

But Cruise didn’t barnstorm or bombast, if only because he has an emotional range from roughly A to B, and everyone else’s character acting (Kenneth Branagh: be still , my beating heart) was textured and gorgeous. And it’s driven me back to reading Constantine Fitzgibbon’s 20 July, and so far I haven’t caught a real fuckup — except the one that glared at me onscreen, when Cruise laid his bomb-laden briefcase against a fairly ordinary conference-table leg, not the bulkhead-like solid trestle that, on a chance transfer of the briefcase from one side to the other, probably saved the Fuhrer’s life in July of 1944.

It leaves you thinking about what kind of guts (stewed with ambition, and opportunism, and desperation) are required to take on a juggernaut weighted with patriotism and ideology, knowing that firing squads and hangmen are most likely waiting. Sobering, but necessary reflection.

(Post script: I gather that hindsight-armed critics are already panning this movie because it doesn’t make the Nazis into dire enough devils. I was rather pleased to see such matter-of-fact portraits of the Nazi leaders and the army that served them; we all know what happened during the twelve years of the Thousand Year Reich, and we risk kidding ourselves if we imagine it was done by cartoon devils and not ordinary men. Or do any of these film critics read the rest of the paper?)

9 thoughts on “Cruising for Doppelgangers

  1. We enjoyed it. My favorite line: “We’re the coup, you idiot!” Some neat little character performances: The same actor officer sighing, “Assemble the men,” and the German sergeant outside the Wolf’s Lair succumbing to Military Fear — including the terrified little head-shake at that empty telephone — was spot-on.

    Music owed more to Stravinsky than to real German military music, which can be goofily sappy and upbeat.

    The movie starting with the Blood Oath on Hitler’s person made me perk up; it was a central reason many officers couldn’t move when the time came.

    I enjoy Cruise’s acting; always have. Dunno why; something dingbat earnest about his work, I guess. No, I have no taste. And I think he’s funny. The eyeball-in-the-drink moment had me in stitches. Germans have a sense of irony like a knife.

    Fashions: France very much stayed on point with high fashion during the especially in hat design (“Just because we’re occupied doesn’t mean we’ll lower our standards!”). German women in the higher military classes were expected to keep up a fashionable front to display patriotism.

    Biggest surprise: “OMG, Eddy Izzard’s in this movie? Where? Where? THAT’s him!!??” Talk about a chameleon!

    • The eyeball in the drink is the moment I’ll remember longest. Priceless. I was howling.

      I suppose my pragmatic character — it is an extreme event when I leave home in a dress for any reason and it better be a goddam good reason — skews my perspective on the whole dressing-up thing.

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