Story matters. By rights, this winter’s anti-Nazi double feature, Valkyrie and Defiance — in which the Wehrmacht’s officer class and Belarus’s Jews, respectively, take up arms against Hitler’s Germany — ought to be a two-engine train wreck. The former film stars an eyepatched Tom Cruise as the German aristocrat Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a piece of miscasting disastrous enough to sink most movies by itself. The latter is yet another earnest humanist epic from Edward Zwick, a director whose recent curriculum vitae includes the lousy historical epic The Last Samurai and the yet-lousier modern epic Blood Diamond. Both movies’ scripts are thudding and obvious; both are war stories from a war that’s already launched more films than Hitler’s Germany had panzers. In Valkyrie, you know how the movie’s going to end; by the midpoint of Defiance, you can more or less predict it.
But story matters. Even if it’s hard to watch Tom Cruise impersonate a Bavarian nobleman without giggling, or to avoid rolling your eyes when Zwick smacks you upside the head with yet another pious speech or dose of heavy-handed symbolism, the on-screen events in both cases are too riveting to be ruined by miscasting and melodrama. You won’t leave Valkyrie convinced that its star was the right choice to play the man who nearly assassinated Hitler, or Defiance convinced that its director has risen above the high-minded hackery that’s defined most of his career. But the stories they’re telling are flat-out fascinating enough that you won’t be sorry to have seen them try.
It helps that neither movie sprawls too far beyond the boundaries of its narrative. Both largely eschew backstory, dropping us into a key inflection point without benefit of setup. In Valkyrie, the year is 1943, and Cruise’s Stauffenberg, shorn of an eye and a hand in North Africa, is being recruited into a preexisting military conspiracy against the Führer, headed by Generals Olbricht (Bill Nighy), von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), and Beck (Terence Stamp). In Defiance, it’s 1941, they’re rounding up Jews in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory, and the tough, forest-savvy Bielski brothers — Daniel Craig’s Tuvia, Liev Schreiber’s Zus, and Jamie Bell’s Asael — decide to take to the woods instead of being herded into ghettos. Extraneous entanglements are kept to a minimum: Stauffenberg has a family, but his wife (Carice van Houten) hovers mutely in the background while the business of the film moves forward. The two older Bielski brothers have wives in the city, but they’re both dead, offstage, within the movie’s first 20 minutes. For the most part, then, there’s only the anti-Hitler plot, and the Jews in the forest.
#page# The subject of Valkyrie is the mechanics of tyrannicide: not only how to kill an evil king, but how to overthrow his government once he’s dead. The subject of Defiance is the mechanics of survival: More Jews enter the woods, first in a trickle and then in a flood, and the Bielski brothers become unlikely leaders for an entire community of refugees. Throughout both films, the older generation falters and fails — the dithering generals, principled enough to plot against Hitler but not brave enough to follow through; the leaders of the Jewish ghetto, fearful of fleeing to the forest, clinging to the hope that they’re worth more to the Nazis alive than dead — while the younger generation steps forward and acts. In one case, you know they’ll pull it off (like Oskar Schindler, the whole fascination of the Bielskis comes from their unparalleled success); the only question is how. In the other case, you know they’ll come close but ultimately fail; the only question is how close.
Both stories seem like myths or parables, too remarkable and resonant to be real. Yet both derive their power — allowing for compression and creative license — from being absolutely true. Especially in the coincidence-laden Valkyrie, if you find yourself thinking, of a given event, that can’t possibly have happened, chances are it did.
The dynamics are primal, even Biblical: brotherly rivalry in Defiance — the eldest Bielski, Craig’s Tuvia, wants to run and hide and keep as many innocents as he can alive; Schreiber’s Zus wants to stand and fight — and, in Valkyrie, the implicit patricide involved in slaying the dark father of the Nazi Reich. (The film’s epigraph is the oath of allegiance, sworn before almighty God and unto death, that every German soldier took to Hitler.) And both stories play out against Eastern Europe’s great primeval forest — a fairy-tale landscape, at once gorgeous and sinister, a place of refuge and of danger all at once. In Defiance, it’s a blue-tinted Eden where the Fall could be reenacted at any moment; in Valkyrie, it’s a forest perilous, with Stauffenberg as the knight-errant, bomb in hand, trying to penetrate the tyrant’s lair.
It’s possible to watch these films with a sense of regret for what they could have been: The stories carry all before them, but there’s a deeper, stronger movie to be made from the material in each case. Yet it’s better to watch them, I think, with gratitude that somebody decided these stories were worth telling, and better that the wrong people were involved than that the films were never made at all.