It’s Academy Award-worthy season, and you know what that means! Nazis! The multiplex is practically teeming with them. Valkyrie served them up for Christmas, and Defiance held it’s own limited New Year’s Eve release to qualify for awards season. Meanwhile, The Reader sneaked into a few theaters as well, waiting for its big push in January. Why, you ask, are the Nazis still cinema’s all-purpose go-to bad guys? Silly Goosesteppers, you know why. Because everybody hates the Nazis, even the Germans! (Not all Germans, just the ones in Valkyrie.) For your cinematic Nazi-hating pleasure, it’s Defiance against Valkyrie as we re-fight World War Two, the war everybody loves starring the villains everybody still loves to hate.
Defiance is an earnest piece of work, based on the true story of three Jewish brothers who escape Nazi-occupied Poland to hide in the Belarussian forest where they join the Russian resistance fighters and build a semi-safe haven for over a thousand other exiled Jews. There are a lot of characters in Defiance. Most of the exiled Jews are little more than unindividuated dress extras; we learn precious few of their stories or names. They fall into two categories – the gratefully compliant and the nasty rebels. Daniel (James Bond) Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie (Billy Elliott) Bell play the least likely looking brothers since Twins Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schreiber has made a career of playing
Jewish… Craig not so much.
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The Defending Champion
Valkyrie is based on another true story about a loosely connected cadre of high-ranking German officers who conspire to assassinate Hitler and seize control of the military in order to end the war. Valkyrie boasts a large cast as well. The reserve soldiers are no more than uniformed functionaries, and the SS guards never struggle with internal questions. However, all the officers and government
officials are intriguingly drawn; nuance is built into the source material, and every actor knows where he stands in every shifting moment. While we know the outcome of all the failed Hitler coup attempts, director Bryan Singer still manages to maintain considerable suspense; all the participants’ various motives and degree of commitment provide plenty of dramatic tension. We know Hitler isn’t
dead, but the people on the screen do not, and we are utterly caught up in all their plotting and second thoughts and anxiety. The performances are uniformly excellent; it’s a pleasure to watch Bill Nighy and Eddie Izzard tackle such complex and serious roles for a change. Such Britscreen luminaries as Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, and Kenneth Branagh do their usual brilliant work.
These two films endeavor to answer two common questions asked about WWII. Why didn’t the Jews fight back? And… Did all the Germans go along with Hitler? They are compelling questions; most Holocaust movies fail to mention any real Jewish resistance; most movie Jews are noble victims. And most Nazis in most movies have no personal politics or motivation. That’s why they’re such excellent movie villains; the uniform is enough.
Both films offer thrilling exceptions to the usual movie rules: It’s edifying to watch Jews in action and Germans in the throes of conscience. I heard that Valkyrie preview audiences complained that the ending would have been better had the conspirators succeeded in killing Hitler. Duh.
Valkyrie is much more than a star vehicle. While Tom Cruise is certainly the biggest name star in the piece, this is no Top Gun Goes To Germany. Critics have savaged Tom Cruise for years; I happen to be a fan. I’m altogether willing to separate a few Scientology-fueled rants from the man’s formidable list of achievement. Go ahead. Name another movie star with as many terrific films on his resume. I’ll wait.
I listened yesterday on NPR radio to an audio mauling of Brad Pitt, another movie star critics routinely despise and reflexively disparage. They tore Tom Cruise a new anal aperture as well. This might be an opportune moment to share one of my more crackbrained critical theories with you. I think critics don’t like handsome movie stars because life is just high school played over and over, and critics by and large were not the popular attractive kids. They were the nerds, biding their time, waiting for their opportunity to make those fortunate few pay. The Toms and the Brads got all the pretty girls, they didn’t have to study too hard, their teeth were impossibly white, and doggone it, people liked them. Their high school nemeses ran the school newspaper and probably slammed them way back then, but that resentment has only grown. Tom and Brad only get more beautiful; they marry the prettiest girl and leave her for someone even more amazing. Frankly, I really don’t see another explanation for slamming two credible and magnetic and forceful and sensitive portrayals. Tom Cruise’s Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button would be talked about for Oscars if Tom looked just a little more like Philip Seymour Hoffman and if Brad looked a little more like Tom Hanks and Angie a little more like Rita Wilson. Case closed. Call me crazy.
While we’re on the subject of looking a little too good, a few words about Daniel Craig in Defiance. Even suffering from malnutrition and fever, Daniel Craig looks more like an Aryan nation poster boy than a real-life Jew in hiding, coming across as strapping and exuding the kind of raw animal sex appeal usually missing in Holocaust drama. Of course, he wins over the incredibly lovely Alexa Davalos’ Lilka; she’s no fool. She likewise suffers no ill effects of life in the woods with no food. Clearly, they’re meant for each other… and another movie.
Defiance should win; it’s exactly the kind of film that usually does. It’s hopeful. It tells an inspiring and true story, but it’s a bit of a slog after a while. All that blue-y darkness. All that epic bleakness. Totally worth seeing but I confess to having checked my watch a few times. Surprisingly, Valkyrie was a well-crafted complex story with plenty of action and intrigue. I hate to do this, but in my little holiday rematch, the Germans win. Valkyrie.