How could Cruise, the all-American action hero, play Germany's only hero of the 20th century, Claus Count Schenk von Stauffenberg, the man who came close to killing Hitler and ending World War II on July 20, 1944? Cruise's membership in the Church of Scientology, seen by German authorities as little more than a money-making operation, fuelled doubts about his suitability.
Now "Valkyrie," named after the plot by German military officers to overthrow the Nazi leadership, has had its world premiere in New York, and German film critics are less damning than might have been expected.
Cruise's performance has been roundly criticized as wooden and low-key, but the film itself, which tells the story of Stauffenberg's failed attempt to blow up Hitler with a briefcase bomb, won muted praise. The supporting cast, including British actors Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson, also got generally positive reviews.
"Exciting, Realistic, Complex"
"Measured in terms of all the things the film was accused of, measured in terms of all that could have gone wrong, one can almost call it a triumph," writes the Munich-basedSüddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "It's definitely the most exciting, realistic and complex feature film about July 20, even if the benchmark -- three German attempts between 1955 and 2004 -- wasn't unattainably high."
"One can also say that Hollywood has never taken such a thoroughly German issue as seriously as it has with this opulent, logistical cinematographic effort."
Daily Die Welt is less impressed but writes that the film does a good job explaining a complicated plot to an international audience. "The whole Valkyrie project seems a little intimidated by history, by its exact reconstructions and by German sensitivities," the paper writes.
If Cruise was hoping for an Oscar, he's going to be disappointed, Die Welt adds. "His Stauffenberg is honorable and serious and firm -- but Cruise's portrayal doesn't convey why this young count fascinated so many people."
Cruise's long list of roles over the last 25 years shows he's best at playing typical American heroes, guys who make it to the top with aggression and energy, Die Welt writes. "But Stauffenberg was a German hero of aristocratic demeanour, and that's a dimension that Cruise totally fails to portray."
Above all, "Valkyrie" is a historical thriller catering for international audiences, writes Die Welt. There's no reason why Hollywood should pay too much attention to German protectiveness towards the man who in a small way has helped lighten the nation's guilt.
"This film is something else to the Americans than it is to us. For Germany, the twentieth of July 1944 is one of the moral pillars of the new, democratic Germany," the paper writes. "For the rest of the world this is simply a thriller, a historical one, but one in which the outcome is as well known as the assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle portrayed by Fred Zinnemann in 'The Day of the Jackal.'"
Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel says "Valkyrie" looks doomed to fail at the box office and the Oscars "because it doesn't dare to be popcorn cinema and at the same time lacks any higher conceptual brilliance."
"The only thing that can definitely be said about this cinema adventure is that Tom Cruise, who has been damaged by his bizarre talk show behavior, may well continue storming the heights of the Scientology hierarchy as a thetan, but his image as an actor has been finally ruined by Valkyrie."
Reaction Better than Expected
Still, the overall initial reaction from German reviewers is better than might have been expected given the scorn heaped on the movie before its release. "Cruise as Stauffenberg is about as deep as a bowl of Corn Flakes," Welt am Sonntag newspaper sniffed earlier this year.
The film was best by problems during the filming in Berlin last year. The German government initially refused to let Cruise film in original locations such as the "Bendler Block" Defense Ministry courtyard where Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad. It later relented, though.
Then 11 extras were hurt when they fell out of a German army truck during filming, prompting a law firm to seek $11 million in compensation from production company United Artists. To make matters worse, part of the film was damaged at a laboratory, which forced the company to re-shoot some scenes.
The release date was changed a number of times, reinforcing media speculation that the film was in trouble.
But not everyone in Germany was opposed to the flick. Some said the country should be pleased Hollywood was finally making a film about a "good German" that would show that not every German obediently followed Hitler.
Besides, Hollywood films have helped shaped the world's memory, writes Die Welt in a separate commentary.
"Without the series 'Holocaust' or 'Schindler's List' by Steven Spielberg, the murder of Europe's Jews would never have turned into a global historical event and 'Auschwitz' wouldn't have become a globally used synonym for absolute evil. Only in this Americanized form did the memory of the crimes flow into Germany's consciousness."
That's not to say "Valkyrie" with its portrayal of a good German will radically alter the world's view of Germany, though. "The film which is historically accurate overall isn't great cinema despite Tom Cruise," Die Welt writes. "It seems like Hollywood with the brakes on."
The film will have its European premiere in Berlin on Jan. 20.
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