Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Why I Saw This Movie
I never got around to seeing this movie when it was current, but it was always one of those movies I meant to see eventually.  And after seeing the historical events in this movie portrayed in The World at War, I was curious to see the Hollywood version.

The Review
            The history is interesting, but the movie is too mechanistic (focusing on who did what where when).  While the character motivations are not ignored, the movie doesn’t have time to develop them naturally, and so they come out mainly in the form of monologues.  A more interesting story would have been the political evolution of the conspirators. Unfortunately that subject is too big for a 2 hour movie.
            The movie is competently made, and interesting as far as it goes, but doesn’t reach the significance it claims for itself.

          Much of what I said in my review of Sophie Scholl holds true here as well.  These type of stories are important because they detract from the deterministic view of history—the idea that people’s values are automatically determined by their culture, and so a person can not be held responsible for having immoral values if those values are common to their time or culture.  Also remembering these stories of resistance increases the culpability of all those who did willingly collaborate with the Nazis.

6 out of 10 (5 points for being a competent production, plus a bonus point for educational value about an often overlooked historical incident.)

External Links
I’m sympathetic to much of what the AVclub had to say: 
Valkyrie has the curious quality of being neither good nor bad enough.
  But in the end, I’m going to have to side with Roger Ebert’s positive assessment of this movie

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on French Intellectual Culture & Post Modernism


angrysoba said...

I'd probably give the movie the same score. I thought it was well-made and suitably "unflashy" (especially perhaps compared to the Quentin Tarantino movie on a similar theme ;)).

Like yourself I also remember watching the film for what to test it against what I knew (or thought I knew) of the events.

I think I had already read the book by one of the conspirators called Hans Bernd Gisevius before watching the film. Gisevius was one of the plotters who had contacted the Americans about the plan and had also been involved, if I remember correctly, in earlier plots. He explains in detail a lot of what happened and also gives something of an account of his own past in the German military and diplomatic service. From what I recall, he took a similar line to yours which is that cultural relativism/determinism was no excuse for the German people who he argues pretended not to know what was going on. Interestingly, he also did not really like Stauffenberg very much, I think. For Gisevius, Stauffenberg was something of a late-comer who changed his mind about Hitler only when the tide was against Germany rather than having been a principled opponent from the beginning.

Another set of books that was useful was Richard Evans's Third Reich Trilogy in which he describes what was called the co-ordination (or Nazification) of all society, although Evans points out that interestingly, the Army was one of the few areas which was not Nazified meaning that a lot of traditional conservatives who disliked Hitler remained in high ranks and these were the types of people that Gisevius and his co-plotters were.

Evans has a few vignettes of Stauffenberg celebrating some early victories of Hitler, which suggests maybe Gisevius had a point about him, although the preface to the Gisevius book I read was critical of him for his take on Stauffenberg and also his support of people such as Nebe who was responsible for a number of atrocities. The preface is in fact written by a biographer of Stauffenberg called Peter Hoffman.

I haven't read Hoffman's book, but I think it would be interesting if you wanted to find out how he came to be part of the plot.

Joel said...

You obviously know a lot more about this area of history than I do.
Basically, all I know is what was mentioned in "The World at War". Which wasn't a lot, but even there it hinted at a lot of interesting stuff that was left out of the movie. There was a brief glimpse in "World at War" of how the conspirators tried to defend their actions in the trial by telling how they had lost their faith in the morality of the Nazis, and were shouted down by the Nazi judge.
Of course there wasn't time to get into any of that in this movie, but I'm sure there's a wealth of interesting material that got left out.
The only other thing I know about this plot was that it involved the famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and that's another thing that got left out of this movie entirely.

Joel said...

Thanks for the book recommendations. I'll take them on board.

>>>Another set of books that was useful was Richard Evans's Third Reich Trilogy in which he describes what was called the co-ordination (or Nazification) of all society, although Evans points out that interestingly, the Army was one of the few areas which was not Nazified meaning that a lot of traditional conservatives who disliked Hitler remained in high ranks and these were the types of people that Gisevius and his co-plotters were.

Interesting point that. The World of War did briefly make the point that this conspiracy united conservative opinion against Hitler with more broad based opposition.

angrysoba said...

“You obviously know a lot more about this area of history than I do.”

Thanks, but most of the time I think that much of what I have read about this period has evaporated. It’s only when I am reminded about this era by such things as reading posts on movies about World War Two that my brain slowly cranks into retrieval mode.

Re: Bonhoeffer, I am very glad you brought him up. I was going to write something about him in my first reply because I know you have some interest in the religious debate. For the purposes of full disclosure on the issue, I myself am an atheist, yet I think Bonhoeffer could be one of my historical heroes, but I would really like to learn more about him myself. I remember reading something by Hitchens in his atheism book that I have always wanted to test which was:

“Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.” (p.7)

Much of that quote seems incorrect. Did Bonhoeffer really “mutate into humanism” or did he not actually consider himself a fundamentalist of a sort? Naturally Evans and Gisevius do have something to say about Bonhoeffer.

Clearly Bonhoeffer did not simply “refuse to collude” with the Nazis but rather, and even better, actively sought to betray the Nazis and kill the leader. Gisevius gives some explanation of Bonhoeffer’s role in German military intelligence (the Abwher) which suggests that he was mostly involved in lines of communication of the wider collaboration against Hitler but was peripheral in the specific plot which would invoke Operation Valkyrie. Nevertheless, he was on the inside and, like Gisevius was paid by the Nazi German state. As with many things Gisevius fumes in his memoirs about post-war critics who had a problem with opponents of Hitler who remained in key positions in the Nazi German state:

“The foolish talk of So-and-So’s being “paid” by Hitler is evidence of the grotesque misunderstandings of the Opposition’s true situation. Running through the list of the dead of the July 20 plot, I find that almost all of them were “inside” and “paid”. Were the officials who wanted to overthrow the Nazis to abandon the key positions they had acquired with such difficulty and maintained so tenaciously, merely in order to give possible moralistic critics no grounds for complaint?” (p.46 in Valkyrie which is actually an abridged version of Gisevius’s memoirs “To The Bitter End”)

angrysoba said...

A book I have read about Cambodia by David Chandler also makes a similar point in which he talks about those who were imprisoned in Tuol Sleng saying that too much is made of the idea that those in S-21 were innocent of the charges of attempting to overthrow the state. By saying that we are implicitly agreeing that their imprisonment would otherwise be just when in fact those who fought hardest against the Khmer Rouge and therefore those who were “guilty” should be seen as the real heroes rather than some of those who stayed silent and were “wrongfully” imprisoned.

Evans gives a lot of information about the Confessing Church and how Bonhoeffer was a real radical within it. In fact, Martin Niemoller whose “First they came for the trade unionists…” quote, was criticized by Bonhoeffer for being far too sympathetic to Nazi authority (and he had voted for them!) There is a specific chapter in Evans’s second volume (The Third Reich in Power) called “Converting the Soul” which has a lot about the Confessional Church as well as Catholicism, Protestantism and the attempts to convert the young to Nazism. Bonhoeffer’s execution is briefly described in the third volume.

I would certainly recommend Evans’s trilogy if you are looking for a comprehensive but obviously bleak description of that period in Germany. I like the fact that Evans generally writes in a dispassionate way about the period leaving the historical details, rather than the author’s voice, to denounce the Nazis.

As for Bonhoeffer, I have been looking for a biography on him, but the only one that I have found in English was written recently by a guy called Eric Metaxas. It looks like it may indeed be a good book, but I am somewhat put off by some of the places he has promoted his book (Glenn Beck and Focus on the Family) which suggests that maybe his book is less a straight biography and more a hagiography and a propaganda book for Evangelical Christianity. There is apparently a well-respected biography of Bonhoeffer in German but I will be unable to read that.

Joel said...

Much of this is getting away from my area of expertise, but let me make a few tangential comments on what I have formed thoughts about. First of all, Hitchens:
I've read Christoper Hitchens' book, and enjoyed it.

But I do think he goes overboard in saying religion poisons everything. I think it takes just as much faith to believe in the Devil as it takes to believe in God--or that is to say, if you take Hitchens thesis at face value, it almost seems like some evil force is behind religion. Whereas if you believe religion is a human creation, you would expect it to have reflect both the positives and negatives of what the human spectrum has to offer.

So as a non-believer (I'm an agnostic myself, since I find the claims of pure materialism unsatisfying), I have no problem attributing positive aspects to religious people such as Bonhoeffer.