Licking Hitler

Tom Von Cruise.

I was always very curious to see Bryan Singer’s VALKYRIE. Just not curious enough to actually see it, at least until three years after it came out.

The film, whose true title is LET’S KILL HITLER TO DEATH, as my friend Randy rightly says (in the same way that the true title of Meryl Streep’s A CRY IN THE DARK is A DINGO ATE MY BABY, as my friends Colin and Morag rightly insist), got a lot of negative publicity early on when people saw what Tom Cruise looked like in a Nazi uniform and eye-patch. Cruise is still a big star, despite being a strange cult member, and so the studio must have felt his involvement bolstered what was already a compelling true story torn from the history books (if you visit a library in LA, all the newspapers and history books are incomplete, because of all the stories torn from them), but the problem is identical to that faced by MGM when they made PARNELL: for every great star, there is a role which is so alien to what the star’s public expects, that the combination of actor and role destroys whatever appeal each may have had. In the case of Tom Cruise, that role was a Nazi with an eye-patch.

I confess to mixed feelings about Bryan Singer. I liked THE USUAL SUSPECTS as much as most people seem to, and his first X-MEN movie seemed like the first superhero movie to capture the appeal of comic book superheroes — good guys and bad guys, broadly drawn, each with his/her own unique set of powers, fighting each other and having soap opera emotional crises. Since some powers are particularly effective against others (Magneto’s magnetism turns Wolverine’s metal skeleton from a strength to a liability), the result has some of the cleverness of a chess game, but with more violence and property damage, so everybody wins.

Of course, SUPERMAN RETURNS was a misfire, despite a convincing Christopher Reeve clone and an amusing Lex Luther and Miss Tessmacher and a convincing duplication of the original Donner and Lester movie’s feel — when it became clear that the plot centered around a scheme basically identical to the first Donner movie’s masterplan, the whole thing started to get arthritic.

Just what this movie needs — a Busby Berkeley water ballet.

VALKYRIE seems to follow an opposite course, actually acquiring greater conviction and force as it goes on. To begin with, the American and British actors mingle poorly, and no alibi is in force to explain why all these German characters have different ways of speaking English. (I hated INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, hated it, but I have to give Tarantino points for an uncompromising approach to language, with everybody speaking the tongue they would have spoken, in the situations they would have spoken it in.) Then Hitler turns up, and he has a GERMAN accent.

I don’t want to be too down on Jeremy Bamber, the non-lookalike cast as the fuhrer. I don’t know whose idea it was that he assume a phony accent, or play the role with similar infirmity to Bruno Ganz’s still-fresh-in-memory barnstorming triumph in DOWNFALL. I can only say, “Lousy idea.”

Then some actual German actors turn up, confusing things still further. And meanwhile, Singer’s directorial tropes are all either over-familiar to the point of distraction, or else stylistically inexplicable and counter-productive. So, much as one wants to be mature and NOT laugh at the spectacle of Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform and eye-patch, the movie doesn’t exactly help one. Once Cruise was seen recruiting Eddie Izzard in a men’s room, and Kenneth Branagh compared Germany to Sodom, I started to wonder if the whole movie could be some kind of strange, sly metaphor concocted by the out gay Singer around the officially heterosexual Cruise. It was weird.

But, as we near the moment of detonation, suspense starts to kick in. Here, David Bordwell talks about the mystery of how movies generate suspense around stories where the outcome is already known to us. It’s a fascinating area. Singer is helped by the fact that, though one hopes most of his audience know the plot against Hitler failed (just as one hopes they know Tarantino’s version of events is not historically accurate), the precise outcome of the aftermath of the failed coup is less familiar to many of us. So, while John Ottman’s scoring and editing, the high-stakes, complicated operation put into action by Cruise, Izzard, Terence Stamp etc (was the whole casting process predicated on height? Cruise may be the tallest man in the film), and the inevitable “what if?” and “if only” thoughts inspired by the story, all do their part, in some ways the denouement’s predictability only adds to the clarity Hitchcock insisted was necessary for true suspense.

As an example of the “what if?” factor — the coup fails because, obviously, Hitler failed in his part of the plan and didn’t die. But, more crucially still, he proved he was still alive by communicating by telephone and radio. Which suggests that, even if he HAD died, the bad Nazis (as opposed to all those good Nazis we’ve all heard so much about) could still have convinced the world A.H. was in charge by enlisting the services of a decent Hitler impersonator. Who was the Third Reich’s equivalent of Rich Little, anyway? On questions like this, the fate of nations may be decided.

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36 Responses to “Licking Hitler”

  1. My late best pal made me promise that I would never watch films that painted ANY German in a bad light… hence, I cannot watch this film. After reading this, I really don’t wanna.

    Accent-wise, the film “Uncle Adolf” has everyone speaking in British accents, yet… hot damn! It is the best film about Hitler I have ever seen. Yeah… I’ll admit… better than “Downfall”. Ken Stott is amazing.

  2. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky Says:

    Don’t know much about the accents, because the one time I’ve seen this film all the way through, the sound was turned off (it was popped in as a sort of background feldgrau noise for a gathering of people).

    But I did end up watching the whole thing this way (because I’m a little antisocial, and my eyes automatically gravitate towards screens), and it’s fascinating how much — viewed as a silent film — the latter half of the movie relies on shots of actors staring angrily at each other. At first this visual / performative repetitiveness was silly, then hilarious, then absolutely mesmerizing. Lends itself to a drinking game.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    I hated INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS too, let me count the ways! But Tarantino flouted his own much-hyped language rule in the early sequence where Weiss’s Jew-hunter switches from French to English to interrogate the French farmer. At first I thought this was some kind of homage to B-movie awkwardness (“We’ve established he can speak French, now let’s drop it”), but no, as some reviewers crowed, there is a plot function: by speaking English, he can communicate with the farmer without letting the hidden Jews know what he’s up to. Except, as a commenter to a French movie blog remarked, Weiss’s character would have been lucky to find a French farmer at that time and place who spoke standard French as well as patois; to have him switching seamlessly into English is as unlikely as having a Mississippi sharecropper of the period casually break into diplomatic French. Giving QT the benefit of the doubt, I assumed this meant the farmer was not actually a farmer, but would turn out to be some kind of agent – but no, he disappears from the plot.

  4. La Faustin Says:

    And that would be Christoph WALTZ, of course, while I’m picking nits.

  5. The entire film “Inglourious Basterds” is a leap of fantasy. I don’t see why the English-speaking farmer should be an inordinate point of contention out of all possible points. Pitt’s character mentions that he fought his way through half of Sicily. Is it reasonable to believe that he wouldn’t be able to speak at least a rudimentary Italian at the climax of the film during his charade?

    I saw “Valkyrie” in the theaters when it came out and thought it was a fairly-entertaining thriller. The difference between it and “Basterds” is the difference between mainstream filmmaking and what we have traditionally called “auteur cinema”. One director has a point of view and a style (which equal out to the same thing) and the other is — as was said in Ray’s “In a Lonely Place” — a popcorn seller.

  6. Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that IB amounts to a kind of Holocaust-denial, since Tarantino refuses to reflect on the fact that at the same time his cast were murdering Hitler in a movie theatre, the camps were still active and people were dying while his characters make dumb jokes.

  7. Blinken Rechnung Says:

    Shoshanna’s filmed speech to the German audience is (rather implausibly) in English.

  8. Wow, lots to respond to here!

    Jilliers, I don’t understand how you were able to watch Uncle Adolf and obey your friend’s dictat. Still Stott is a marvelous, underappreciated actor. Hitler should always be played by a Scot.

    The key thing with accents is to be consistent with whatever fantasy you’re embracing, so if the French characters in The Three Musketeers speak English, for instance, ideally they should use either English or American accents.

    But I love Lester’s Three Musketeers (in which the one French actor is dubbed with an English accent, sounds like Richard Briers) and Amadeus, both of which are pretty inconsistent.

    Ignatiy, yes the film goes from absurd to curiously compelling even with the sound on. Still didn’t think it was exactly good, but it held my interest.

    La Faustin, you’re quite right that the Revenge of the Big Face sequence completely violates QT’s linguistic principles.

    Re IB, as my friend D Brown asked, “How many Jewish dairy farmers WERE there in France anyway?” So the whole thing is nutty wish-fulfillment (we won’t wish the Holocaust never happened, we’ll just wish Hitler got machine-gunned by Americans). It’s not Holocaust denial, it’s more like QT is pirouetting on a mound of corpses.

    Pitt’s failed attempts at Italian, and the face he makes while making them, is one of the funnier jokes. But even the funny jokes gave me a sick feeling.

  9. Bryan Singer’s and interesting guy, and obviously equipped with enormous technical skill. But I’m not certain what kind of film he wants to make and I suspect he doesn’t either. Apt Pupil (which got him into a spot of trouble when grabby, manipulative “stage parents” discovered that the guy who was directing their little Johnny was gay — and tried to pull a Polanski on him) was his first Nazi film. Ian McKellen was excellent in it — but then he’s almost never bad.

    Cruise, needless to say, is a whole other kettle of fishiness. This was his second attempt (The Last Samurai being the first) to “stretch himself” and win an Oscar. But with one-arm and eye-patch he’s STILL Tom Cruise. As for the film I’m reminded of Nico’s claims that her father was involved in the 14th of July Officer’s Plot.
    Dedicated fabulist that she was Nico had decided to epoxy herself iconographically to Verushka — whose father WAS involved in the 14th of July Officer’s Plot. Paul Morrissey has co-directed a new documentary about Verushka that as far as I can tell has yet to surface anywhere — just like his last fiction film News From Nowhere. One more unreleased Morrissey — and it stars Viva!

  10. Wow. Wish he could just release them himself.

    I’m keen to see Pabst’s film, It Happened on the 14th July. He has the enormous advantage of being German and making his film in Germany with Germans. Just as Bruno Ganz had the edge on, say Alec Guinness, despite neither of them looking like AH.

    Cruise’s best attempts to stretch himself were Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, where all his uncomfortable qualities kind of worked for the roles, in different ways. I’m sure he drew on his Scientology training to play that shitheel in the PTA film.

  11. And Stanley (bless his dark heart) deftly engineered the end of the Cruise-Kidman marriage via a multi-million dollar, decades in the making, Arthur Schnitzler adaption.

    In many ways he declared war on Cruise’s persona (cinematic and otherwise.)

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    Bobby Watson was the best Hitler on screen–ever!

  13. Bobby Watson, as seen in “The Hitler Gang”:

    Wherein also: Fritz Kortner IS Gregor Strasser. Reinhold Schuenzel IS General Ludendorff. And of course, Alexander Granach IS Julius Streicher.

  14. His limitations aside, Cruise’s performance in EYES WIDE SHUT is very good and its actually fairly gutsy for him to take the role. The whole movie is about a guy who realizes how complacent his life is and how little he understands things. There are many films with the same theme but it’s rare to see a star play that kind of role. And EYES WIDE SHUT is very much a star movie. Though in terms of performance, Cruise is easily outshined by Sydney Pollack and especially Nicole Kidman (the best performance by any actress in Kubrick’s work).

  15. Regarding Apt Pupil, unfortunately Singer’s film is left in the dust (despite excellent performances by McKellen and the sadly shortlived Renfro) by the much more powerful film In A Glass Cage. That film tackles the same kind of material of an ex-Nazi being coerced into recounting his crimes for a younger generation obsessed with the elevated iconography of evil, and ready to run with it to a further extreme.

    As well as the legacy for future generations idea (infection or opportunity? nature or nurture?), by turning the tables somewhat with the Nazi paralysing himself in a ‘suicide attempt’ at the opening, it also far more successfully tackles the themes of the giving and receiving of power, the removal of choice from the vulnerable, and the (especially disturbing in the child murder scenes but also highlighted by the casual play both the sister and the mysterious young man have with the iron lung machine) abuse of those who need a reliable carer the most.

    The film also features an excellent performance by Marisa Paredes as the rather uncaring sister – one of the few performances I have seen her in before pre-dating her association with Pedro Almodovar.

  16. Best actress in Kubrick: Shelley Winters.

    Villaronga is someone I haven’t tried.

    Also in The Hitler Gang: Martin Kosleck, world’s greatest Goebbels!

  17. David Boxwell Says:

    Imdb records 10, count ’em 10, Hitler appearances by Watson, from 1942 to 1962. (I only knew of two of them, THE MIRACLE OF MORGANS CREEK and NAZTY NUISANCE).

    And: Another gob-smacked vote of approval for Villaronga’s provocative film.

  18. I recently caught two British films that deal with the Nazi threat, both made during the war. The first, Cavalcanti’s WENT THE DAY WELL?, about a regiment of British soldiers that impose themselves on the residents of a small town and turn out to be Germans in disguise, was a bit formulaic at the start but things take a dark turn at a certain point and don’t look back. Some very startling scenes of violence as the Nazis make themselves known to the townspeople. Leslie Banks stands out as the turncoat whose actions surreptitiously work to undermine the citizens’ revolt. The other film, Frank Launder’s 2000 WOMEN, involves a group of British women interned within a French hotel by the Germans. This one comes across as less plausible for a number of different reasons. Their captors seem asleep at the wheel most of the time, and their living situation seems too posh to be believable. Actually this film is even more formulaic than Cavalcanti’s, and less engaging for that reason, but still worth a look for what it represents. Someone should put together a book dealing with the depiction of Nazis in cinema since the Second World War. Seems to me there’d be more than enough material to sink one’s teeth into and get the ball rolling.

  19. Chuck, thanks, that’s fascinating. Wish they’d specified earlier that this was a film written, not directed, by Hitch, to avoid confusion, but it’s still exciting news. I love Betty Compson.

    Guy, there are bits on both those films here somewheres. Went the Day Well? is now replacing early David Lean in the hearts of British cinephiles, as our tastes have turned darker.

    That’s a good idea re the book, there seems to be a whole library of works on actual Nazi cinema, but little in the way of overview on how they’ve been portrayed elsewhere.

  20. Oh dear, when Chuck mentioned AH, I thought it another Hitler reference and passed it by.

  21. It was a deliberate initials-based surprise linkage.

    Graham Cutts directed Ivor Novello in The Rat, which Hitch and Alma also worked on — they felt he had no visual style and so attempted to guide him, so this newly discovered footage might actually feature Hitchcockian directorial touches.

  22. kevin mummery Says:

    Haven’t seen “Valkyrie” due to my extreme Scientology/Tom Cruise phobia, but I did see “Inglorious Basterds” and I’m glad to find others here who apparently hated it as much as I did. Looking forward to “Went The Day Well?”, it’s on my Netflix queue; tomorrow’s viewing schedule features “Munchhausen”, the 1943 UFA extravaganza I’ve wanted to see for eons but always avoided because of the unfortunate National Socialist association.

  23. Munchausen always feels like it should be extremely charming, but just isn’t. And you know, I think the National Socialist thing might have something to do with it. And also, having a tubby Munchausen just looks wrong.

    Great UFAcolor, great designs, but somehow creepy, and the lack of dramatic tension has the same damaging effect as in the Gilliam, only worse.

  24. I’ve actually come to enjoy seeing Tom Cruise on screen as he’s become something like the anti-Brando. Whereas Brando could shape a film by what would often appear to be a performance bordering on being out of control, or maybe just pure performance even if that performance comes from something deep within him that reveals something about Brando through the character he plays. Cruise misshapes his films by appearing so controlled that it becomes almost as uncanny, as the attempt to prevent himself from being revealing serves to call more attention to Cruise than the character.

    Cruise has an intensity on screen that’s astonishing, even when it may not be appropriate, as in something like Knight and Day, which is either a clever undermining of the romantic comedy genre or so completely off the mark as to serve the same purpose unintentionally. With it’s repeated references to drugging one’s love interest, it brings to mind The Man Who Knew too Much where McKenna drugs his wife before telling her the news about their son. Here though it seems to be intended as some sort of foreplay, but Cruise seems so damned over-earnest about his character that it feels like he is trying to woo Diaz by sheer force of will and Cruisiness. It’s just weird, and works well as an alternative to that other Mangold film, Kate & Leopold.

  25. THEY SAVED HITLER’S ACCENT!

    I must confess this exceptionalism bothered me in The Great Dictator, too.

  26. The Great Dictator is just peculiar — Hynkel starts off speaking Tomanian, he and the Jewish barber have the same English accent as well as looking the same, some of the Jews and some of the Nazis have Germanic accents (including Max Davidson, as gloriously unfunny for Chaplin as he was for Roach) and Paulette Godard and several other characters are defiantly American.

    Never bothered me, it’s not that kind of film.

  27. As for Cruise, Kubrick does seem to exploit his discomfort awfully well: Cruise doing Nicholson’s Mr Angry act from The Shining, for instance, has a very different feel from the original.

  28. kevin mummery Says:

    Well. “Munchhausen”, while entertaining in a way, certainly lacks pretty much everything a movie one would want to see again lacks. Engaging characters? Lacking. Credible ability to suspend disbelief? Lacking. Overall atmosphere of being made by a political apparatus facing certain annihilation in a very short time? THAT it’s got…in fact, I can say without fear of contradiction that this is one film that would have actually been improved by the presence of Tom Cruise. Which may be the first time in history anyone has conceived and/or written that sentence, and it very well may the last time, too.

  29. Well, Cruise’s presence would certainly raise intriguing questions, about time travel &c.

    I think a good movie could be made about Munchausen plotting to assassinate Hitler, though.

  30. Concerning accents; there’s also Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons where the class hierarchy is cleverly essayed by having Scottish actors, speaking in their own accents, play ALL of the French peasants. Maybe it was beyond his control.

  31. …and Americans as aristocrats. It was fine with me, it was consistent, even if it didn’t make any clear sense.

    In Robin and Marian, Sean Connery’s accent is integrated by having all the outlaws speak with Scottish accents (of various sorts, admittedly).

    John Milius’s explanation for casting Connery as an arab: “We’ll just assume whoever taught him English had a Scottish accent.”

  32. david wingrove Says:

    IN A GLASS CAGE is a near masterpiece, and Villaronga’s EL MAR is perhaps even better.

    INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is one of the most witless, brainless, tasteless, soulless pieces of crap I have ever endured in a liftime of film obsession.

    Best actress in Kubrick film…Shelley, of course, but spare a thought for Marisa Berenson in BARRY LYNDON, who raises glamour to the status of High Art.

    The ultimate plot-to-kill-Hitler movie would have to be Anatole Litvak’s NIGHT OF THE GENERALS….

    “Are you wearing cologne, lieutenant?

  33. david wingrove Says:

    I occasionally use a light aftershave, Mein General.

  34. I’ve never seen Nick Grinde’s Hitler: Dead or Alive, but it seems to be the real antecedent to QT’s torture-fest: the difference being it was made during WWII, when getting Hitler was still a possibility and the assassination fantasy had a valid propaganda purpose.

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