The film opens with a simple plot to kill the Führer - a bomb, disguised as a Cointreau bottle, is handed to an officer as he boards a flight alongside Hitler. Though we know that the bomb does not take out its target - what a short film that would make for - the tension of the situation introduces us to the lynchpins of the resistance.
The premise of the rest of the film is simple enough for a military history thriller. One disaffected highly-ranked officer - Colonel von Stauffenberg - joins the resistance when his division are decimated by a surprise air attack out in Tunisia. Their plan: to take out Hitler and install a sympathetic government to restore Germany in the eyes of the world, and make clear that not everybody followed the Führer into Sodom.
Von Stauffenberg is not convinced by the proposals: the oath taken by all Germans is to Hitler. He is more than the Führer - he is a legend, a ghost, an idea. He will not die when he is shot. The legions of men faithful to him will remain, and this basic plan will not avert the inevitable mass slaughter and defeat.
Between reverberations from dropping bombs, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (auf Deutsch, die Walküre) plays in the hallway as our protagonist bides his time in a bomb shelter with his family, which inspires a plan. Operation Walküre - an emergency reserve force to protect the government in the case of Hitler’s death or inaccessibility - could be the agent for installing a new government, if they were convinced that the SS had assassinated Hitler as part of a military coup.
Ironically, Hitler later claims that understanding National Socialism requires understanding Wagner, just as he signs orders that re-engineer Operation Walküre, and sets the cogs of the resistance’s plan into motion.
Whilst this films spares us all of the brutalities of the Nazi regime, we do see the more disturbing aspects that lead to those well-known consequences: the blind obedience to a man who was mad at best, and evil at worst.
The layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy, the regular tests and declarations of allegiance, the complete collusion made it hard to second-guess any of his doctrine, let alone defect, when death was a probable outcome for dissenters. Once the wheels of this trainwreck of personality and dogma were started, only complete obliteration of Germany stopped it.
There is a beautifully symbolic moment where von Stauffenberg is pointedly ordered to ‘heil Hitler’ after clear hesitation. We see, from behind, him raise his arm in salute, and scream the words; now from the front, we see his gauged-out eye, and are shown his arm held high in the air … severed stump and all.
It’s odd to watch a film like this when you know the sorry outcome. It turns out there were a grand total of 17 unsuccessful attempts on Hitler’s life. All it would have taken was one. I found myself hoping that the film departed from history and tried instead to paint a brighter future for the last few years of the war, and for 20th century Germany. You really, desperately want them to succeed.
Yet, it wasn’t to be. Hitler was not killed. The botched Operation Walküre does not bring down the government. The protagonist - Col von Stauffenberg - does, as expected, die. And yet it is compelling watching all the same - the thrill of the chase; the surge of those who dream of a better Germany; and the falling into place of a plan that is destined to fail.
But Stauffenberg is remembered publicly &em; something of a small silver lining to an otherwise depressing story. In fact, he's the only Nazi officer to be commemorated at all &em; by a plaque where he met his end. A small reminder of the importance of dissent.