Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Valkyrie and Defiance

I finally saw Valkyrie and Defiance last night on Netflix DVD - a Nazi true-story double-header in the household. As harrowing as such movies are, we watch them from the cushion of knowing we won the war, in the end - though not before horrendous damage was done to humanity, including the Holocaust.

Valkyrie was a reasonably good rendition of the daring 1944 Germany Army bomb plot that almost killed Hitler. Tom Cruise was effective as von Stauffenberg - who planted the bomb and in many ways spearheaded the operation - and Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson are a pleasure to see in any role.

The plot failed for several reasons. Hitler survived the bomb because it went off in a meeting room larger and more open than expected. Had the explosion occurred in the original room, its bunker construction would have contained and thereby made more lethal the explosive power. And the briefcase with the bomb was inadvertently moved to a place under the table where the blast was somewhat deflected from Hitler.

With Hitler alive, the only chance the plot had was for the conspirators to quickly wrest power from the Gestapo, and this turn in depended on the belief that Hitler had perished in the explosion. Hitler's voice on the phone to a key army official was the decisive turning point depicted in the movie. I favor the interpretation that Hitler's voice on radio, the day after the explosion, was even more decisive, because the radio reached everyone (see The Soft Edge for more), but the point remains about the power of the voice to save or change everything in an age of telephone and radio. Given the capacity for spoofing and deception in the digital age, that power may no longer exist today.

Defiance tells the heroic, inspiring story of the four Bielski brothers, who escape into the forest and organize resistance after the German occupation and slaughter of Jews in Belarus in 1941. Daniel Craig as Tuvia, Liev Schreiber as Zus, and Jamie Bell as Asael are simply superb, and I'd say Defiance was one the best movies I've seen in years (better than the excellent Munich, in which Craig also played a take-no-prisoners Jewish fighter, and better than Valkyrie). My wife and I have grandparents and relatives who come from that area, and we could see their faces and hear their voices in this movie.

All of the brothers - and their love interests (it was good see Mia Wasikowska, Sophie on In Treatment, play Asael's in Defiance) - survived against all odds, and our knowing that Tuvia, Zus, and Aron (who was a boy in 1941) made it to New York after the war, and opened a trucking business, was especially satisfying. (Asael joined the Russians against the Germans and was killed in action.) Tuvia died at 81 in 1987, Zus at 82 in 1995, and Aron is still alive.

So, yes, the bomb plot failed, the Bielskis did not, and we beat the Nazis.

But as the extremist part of the debate now raging about health care reform in America now shows - with some opponents of Obama likening him to Hitler, which is itself a classic Hitlerian propaganda tactic (false association and insistent exaggeration) - we need to take care more than ever to keep our democratic processes and protections real and robost. The Weimar Republic, which the Nazis overthrew, was after all a democracy too...

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