You’re the biggest movie star in the world: Oscar-nommed, box-office gold, great smile. It’s been that way for decades. But for whatever reason (you’re shorter than Will Smith, they say you believe in aliens, yada yada), you need a popularity boost. What do you do? You play a Nazi. Obviously.
Actually, as ever with Tom Cruise, tabloid headlines are wrong turns. “He isn’t a Nazi,” says Cruise, as Total Film joins him in Berlin for a stroll around the set of WWII thriller Valkyrie. “He was a man who said, ‘Someone’s got to kill this guy.’ And as time went on, it became very apparent that he’s the one who has to do it. Do you know the story?”
The story is one of the most remarkable of World War Two. “This guy” is Adolf Hitler. In July 1944, less than a year before the war ended, German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate the Fuhrer with a briefcase full of bombs. As Nazis go, you’d struggle to pick a better one.
You could say the same for Valkyrie’s filmmaking team. After three back-to-back blockbusters and with his Superman Returns sequel stalling, Bryan Singer was looking for a smaller, gristlier project when Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie showed him the pitch: an ensemble thriller just like their 1995 Oscar-winner. Along with the script, Singer and McQuarrie gave Cruise a picture of von Stauffenberg. On hunt for new projects for his newly rejuvenated studio United Artists, the actor/producer was hooked by both.
Described by Hitler’s close confidente Albert Speer as a man of “mystical good looks,” Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg does indeed bear a startling resemblance to Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. “We got hold of a uniform, I put the thing on and it was like I immediately felt, ‘Okay. We’re going to tell this story,'” recalls Cruise. “I knew there were attempts on Hitler, but I didn’t know about von Stauffenberg until I read Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay.”
McQuarrie’s screenplay – his first since The Way Of The Gun eight years ago – begins as von Stauffenberg returns home to Nazi Germany after being horribly wounded in Africa. It’s here he begins plan Operation Valkyrie, a plot to seize control of the German government after the Fuhrer’s death. After several failed attempts to kill Hitler, Stauffenberg decides to do the job himself.
“The screenplay itself is extraordinary,” says Cruise. “It made my hands sweat when I was reading it. This movie, you must understand, is not a biopic. It’s not a documentary. It’s a thriller – very dynamic, very tense.” None of that stopped Cruise from immersing himself into the history of the character. “When I started out, I was like, ‘Okay, let me do my own research.’ I spent…” he pauses. “What month are we?” It’s August. “It’s been eight months of preparation for me.” Cruise hired his own personal researcher, studied history books and spoke with the surviving members of von Stauffenberg’s family. There’s one thing, mind. Cruise’s von Stauffenberg doesn’t sound particularly German. “You know, we spent a lot of time going back and forth over that,” says Cruise, inviting us to take a seat with him as we duck inside a small screening room. “All of a sudden you’re listening to people trying to put on accents and Bryan finally said, ‘No, no, no.’ Just tell the story. We don’t want to do an accent movie, just try and find something neutral that won’t distract from the story and the characters.” On a physical level, though, Cruise has plenty to grab on to: Stauffenberg lost his left eye, his right hand and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand when his vehicle was strafed by British fighter-bombers in Africa. Donning an eye patch and learning to write left-handed, the German joked that he never really knew what to do with so many fingers anyway. “I actually practised a lot of dressing myself, moving around and writing, only using the fingers and not having a hand,” says Cruise. Total Film looks down at his left mitt. What was it, two fingers? “No, I’ve got three,” he laughs, waggling his digits before using one of them to prod the play button on the videoscreen in front of us.
It’s a pivotal scene from the film: Cruise’s von Stauffenberg reunited with his wife (Black Book starlet Carice van Houten) and children after emerging from hospital. As Claus and Nina start dancing a waltz, their oldest son changes the music to ‘Ride Of The Valkyries’ and the children start play-acting Wagner’s opera. Von Stauffenberg smiles with delight. But his delight turns to sadness as one of the boys pretends that he’s being killed in a swordfight. Suddenly, the lights flicker and the air-raid siren goes off. “It’s a beautiful moment in the movie, says Cruise. “That point when he realised, ‘I am the only one that can do it and it’s going to cost me my life.’ I think when von Stauffenberg was looking at his children, he understood that if he didn’t do it, what kind of world will there be for his children. I mean, you can’t get any more in terms of the drama of humanity and politics and life.”
Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a photograph of the cast, all immaculately dressed in German army costume. “That’s why I love this,” he says. “I just love this photo. You can really tell all the different personalities of these figures that I think each of the actors have embodied.” It’s some cast: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp are co-conspirators and Nazis. Cruise taps his finger on van Houten. “Look at Carice’s face… That’s… that’s what it is.”
Others, however, had a slightly different slant on what Valkyrie is. “It’s bound to be rubbish,” said von Stauffenberg’s eldest son, who admitted he only knew Cruise from “one of those military films”. That film was Top Gun. Fair enough, not the most considered historical drama. “I’m not saying that Cruise is a bad actor,” continued the retired army general. “It is unpleasant for me that an avowed Scientologist will be playing my father. He should go climb a mountain or go surfing in the Caribbean.”
Ah. And so the problems began… In a country where Scientology is openly considered a dangerous cult, it was hardly surprising when the German Protestant Church compared Cruise to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. German authorities briskly banned Cruise from shooting at Bendlerblock, the location where Stauffenberg plotted Hitler’s downfall. Given Germany’s understandably prickly relationship with religious intolerance, was there a special resonance for the actor here? Cruise won’t bite. “I don’t really have anything to say about it,” he shrugs. “I feel a great, great responsibility to tell this story. I thought of it in terms of what Stauffenberg represents – people opposed to the Nazis and what they stood for. Someone who realised that and took the steps that ultimately cost him his life. To me, I find that very moving, okay? Incredibly moving.”
Luckily, Cruise wasn’t the only one who saw the bigger picture. Von Stauffenberg’s grandson took a role in the film, while several German newspapers, Das Boot helmer Wolfgang Peterson as well as The Lives Of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and star Armin Mueller-Stahl all gave their support.
The tide began to turn. Having read McQuarrie’s script, the Defense Ministry relented. Still, as filming started in summer 2007 – almost on the exact anniversary of the failed assassination – they had reason to be cautious. For the first time since Hitler’s reign, swastikas appeared across filming locations in Berlin and on sides of World War II planes that flew above Brandenburg. Passersby were shocked. But authenticity was what Singer and Cruise wanted. The crew even procured surviving Nazi relics, everything from tables and chairs used by the Reich Ministry to items that once sat on Hitler’s desk.
Most vital of 70-odd sets was the Wolf’s Lair, a hidden camp where von Stauffenberg’s attempt on Hitler took place. During a meeting there on 20 July 1944, von Stauffenberg propped a briefcase containing two small bombs against the table-leg next to Hitler and excused himself. Minutes later, he watched a huge blast tear through the building. Four people were killed and almost everyone present was injured. But miraculously, Hitler was only slightly hurt, shielded from the blast by the heavy oak conference table. There’s been massive speculation by researchers that if only von Stauffenberg had placed the brief in a slightly different place, history could have been changed completely. “I know,” nods Cruise. “I love it. When you see this movie, we’ll have this discussion back and forth…”
Stauffenberg was caught and shot dead a day later. Before filming the scene, Cruise led a moment of silence. But disaster almost struck: the film was ruined in development, meaning Singer had to beg the German government again for permission to reshoot at the Bendlerblock memorial site. But by this point, it was unclear when audiences would see any of the film. Originally slated for release in August 2008, Valkyrie was dragged forward to June, then shoved back to October. The thinking? To dodge blockbusters WALL-E and Wanted, to allow Singer to shoot the major battle sequence in which von Stauffenberg loses his eye and hand and to boost Valkyrie’s odds of Oscar glory. But when the film was shunted back again to February 2009 with the budget swollen to a reported $100 million, bad buzz was starting to rumble.
When it finally doe hit the screen, the film and its star will be under massive scrutiny. The pressure is also on for Cruise’s United Artists studio, after the poor box-office debut of Lions For Lambs. Cruise knows it, too. “I have no idea what the response will be,” he admits. “We have no idea, man. Believe me, we put so much pressure on ourselves. I want to entertain. You know, as a kid, I’ll never forget the money I saved to go to the cinema and be entertained.”
But Tom Cruise is smart. By the time anyone sees him as a one-eyed Nazi assassin, they’ll have seen him in hairy-armed fat-suit, a bald-cap, swearing violently down a cellphone in the year’s most hilarious comedy performance. Here’s the heads-up: Ben Stiller’s all-star comedy Tropic Thunder is Cruise’s other war movie – and he’s the best thing in it.
“You know what? Like everything, I am just going to really try to do the best I can. I get excited about cinema. I still can’t help but be that kid who’s like I can’t believe this has happened to me. I feel lucky.” You get the feeling 2009 might just be Cruise’s year. You get the feeling it’s nothing to do with luck. “We’ll talk five years from now and you’ll tell me how I did,” he smiles, with a shrug. “I either did it or I didn’t.”
Publication: Total Film.