Not one, but two films concerning Nazi Germany are set for Christmas release -- and neither is particularly feel-good holiday fare. One's a high-profile Hollywood thriller with a fizzled ending that you already know, and the other is a downbeat romance marred by the post-war reckoning of culpability.
Knowing that the plot to kill Hitler won't work out mutes much of the dramatic intrigue that Valkyrie needs. Though based on events that actually occurred in 1944, the film is woefully short on background and nuance. The planned murder of Hitler by a group of politicians and military officers is presented as a de facto (if dicey) plan. From here in 2008, it's easy to fill in "Hitler = bad," but what motivated this disparate group to act? Also left unexplored: the classic Ethics 101 puzzler -- is it right to kill one man to prevent future deaths? (Though you never get the sense that the killing of others is this cabal's chief concern.)
The scheme's daredevil is Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, portrayed by Tom Cruise, who is simply a handsome, even-keeled cipher made extra rakish by his stylish eye-patch and smart uniform. Cruise is supported by a crew of ever-reliable Brits, including Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh, who at least know to play to the cheap seats in this kind of historical melodrama.
I would have preferred more talking and less zipping around, but Valkyrie is directed by Bryan Singer, who has helmed X-Men and X2. If you swap out the Nazi gear for superhero suits, it's a familiar sort of movie -- a band of rebels with secret powers seeking to take down the evil mastermind.
It's the personal costs of the war that are examined in fine detail in Stephen Daldry's drama The Reader. Whereas Valkyrie suffered for not having some basics spelled out, the emotional impact of this film comes from our inference. Its two protagonists are guarded and taciturn, yet after two hours, we know much of the shattered illusion, betrayal and remorse that mark both their lives.
In 1958, Michael (David Kross), a 15-year-old German boy, begins a short affair with a mysterious older woman named Hannah (Kate Winslet). She initiates him into sex, and he reads aloud to her from the classics. After an idyllic summer, Hannah leaves without a word. When we catch up with Michael six years later, he is a law student monitoring the war-crimes trial of women who served as guards at a concentration camp, one of whom is Hannah.
Daldry's handsomely photographed film cuts between highs and lows of Michael's youth, and the outwardly successful adult (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) he became. But, he's a damaged soul -- as is his entire generation, who against the backdrop of reconstruction, have shouldered the confusion, guilt and anger wrought by the knowledge of war-time atrocities committed by their elders. Here, this seemingly irresolvable conflict is encapsulated in the ongoing relationship of Hannah and Michael, both in her inability to explain and his inability to forgive.
The three leads do fine work (particularly Kross, making his English-language debut), navigating emotionally tricky and complex material. (This is a much better examination of the banality of evil and its collateral effects than the recent Boy in the Striped Pajamas.) The intensity of much of the film left its coda feeling more rote than organic, but this is a solid, satisfying drama.