Who Would Jesus Assasinate?

24/01/09 | Posted by MattPage

Film Review: Valkyrie
Would Jesus have approved of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler? German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg certainly thought so, even risking his life in an attempt to kill the Nazis' infamous leader.

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 Tom Cruise as von Stauffenberg: United Artists

The story of Stauffenberg’s failed attempt is currently being re-told in Valkyrie a new film starring Tom Cruise. As you might expect, Cruise plays the Colonel himself, but the movie is clear that the July 20 plot was far from a one man show. Stauffenberg was a relatively low ranked member of the German resistance movement which featured officers such as Major-General von Tresckow (played here by Kenneth Brannagh),  and generals Olbricht (Bill Nighy) and Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard). But two things marked Stauffenberg out as different. Firstly, it was his idea to amend the contingency plan for Hitler’s death so the resistance could actually overthrow the Nazis. But, more importantly, it was Stauffenberg’s willingness to be the man who would actually do the bombing.

It’s clear from the opening scenes that, for some time, Stauffenberg had been unhappy with the direction in which his country was going. But interestingly his determination to take decisive action is clearly linked to his Christian faith. Early on we see Stauffenberg praying in church whilst the camera focuses on a large statue of Jesus on the cross. It’s a decisive moment for him, a point underlined later on by the sight of a crucifix around his neck.

The question has subsequently been debated a great deal. Jesus taught people to love their enemies and refused to use force to defend himself, but he also declared that his mission was to release the oppressed. Whilst the real Stauffenberg was initially opposed to assassinating Hitler, he ultimately came to the conclusion that allowing him to live would be even more immoral. Just how would the Prince of Peace have reacted were he born into Nazi Germany?

At the same time, what’s clear from the film is that not everyone in the German resistance was motivated by purely ethical concerns. Some simply thought that removing Hitler meant they had a better chance of winning the war, or saving the country from the Allies. Not everyone had as pure a motive as Stauffenberg.

What’s strange about the film, though, is that despite Stauffenberg’s heroic cause and despite the insights into his mind, (such as his voiceover at the start of the film) it’s still hard to relate to him. We even see his wife and four children, with the hint that another child is on its way, yet I never really rooted for him. Perhaps this is how it should be. The film is set in 1944. The atrocities of the Nazi regime had been happening for years before Stauffenberg decided to take action.

It does make the finished film somewhat unsatisfying, however. There’s never really a character we can relate to or side with. And without that, particularly given that we know that Hitler ultimately survives, the film lacks some tension and excitement. Compare Valkyrie to 2004’s Downfall. Like Valkyrie the outcome, Hitler’s defeat and subsequent suicide, is known long before the opening credits. But there the audience easily relates to Hitler’s secretary, whilst the claustrophobia and sense of panic make it compelling viewing.

So whilst this becomes one of only a handful of films in which Tom Cruise’s character actually dies, there’s little sense of tragedy about the way Stauffenberg’s mission fails. And given just how many lives it could have saved, this story deserved a little more.

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