Beyond Valkyrie

How the two postwar Germanys told the story of German resistance
by Anne Nelson  posted January 8, 2009
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Until the World War II epic Valkyrie opened at the end of December, many Americans were unaware that Nazi Germany even had a resistance. Directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects and X-Men), Valkyrie was subject to an unusual amount of preproduction debate, much of it centered on Tom Cruise's controversial comeback. A later wave of reactions, such as George Will's in Newsweek, fault it for taking an action-film approach, without providing a broader vision of German resistance. While it may be tempting to approach Valkyrie as Mission Impossible: the Prequel, the film's depiction of its characters and recreaction of its wartime Berlin settings are remarkably faithful to the historical record, and it serves as a fine introduction to the complex theme of German resistance. To dig deeper, though, one must turn to a long line of German films that depict various anti-Nazi movements under the Third Reich. Many of these films had to overcome grueling obstacles to make it to the big screen, but considered together, they shed valuable light on the politics of filmmaking in the two postwar Germanys.

Claus von Stauffenberg's final Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler unfolded in the last year of the war, but anti-Nazi movements were active in Germany from the earliest days of the regime. It was dodgy business. As soon as they took power in 1933, the Nazis moved quickly to gut the Reichstag, or parliament, and silence the legal opposition through concentration camps, exile, or murder. Most of the early victims were members of the previously legal Social Democratic and Communist parties. The military conspiracy was only one of many forms of underground resistance that sprang up over the next decade. Trade unions and Communist cells staged strikes and sabotage on factory floors. Student groups such as the White Rose in Munich and the Helmut Hübener circle in Hamburg wrote and distributed illegal flyers denouncing Hitler’s crimes. One of the most influential groups was the loose coalition of bureaucrats and intellectuals known as the Red Orchestra, who infiltrated Nazi ministries (including Goebbels's propaganda ministry and the UFA film empire). This circle used its access to gather information for anti-Nazi pamphlets and offer military intelligence for the Allies.

These politically diverse groups had three important factors in common: they did not begin on the Nazis' list of targets, and took action out of principle, not out of self-defense; their activities were eventually detected and terminated by the Gestapo; and there were enough survivors to recount their histories after the war through memoir, theater, and film.

One of the first voices to emerge from the rubble was that of playwright and screenwriter Günther Weisenborn. A theatrical collaborator with Brecht and Piscator in better times, Weisenborn had joined the Red Orchestra in the late 1930s. The circle’s associates had many ties to the German film industry, and included a former MGM publicist, a film actress, and a major producer. Weisenborn had been blacklisted by the Nazis, but continued his screenwriting career under various pseudonyms. In 1940 he infiltrated the staff of Goebbels's radio network at the prompting of his fellow resisters. He exploited his position to undermine the regime until the fall of 1942, when his group was rounded up by the Gestapo. Many were executed.

Weisenborn was sent to prison. When he was released after the war, he memorialized his friends in a play called The Illegals, which was widely produced across Germany. But making movies proved to be more complicated. Weisenborn and his friend, director Wolfgang Staudte, wanted to make films that spoke to Germany's recent past, but they met opposition from U.S. occupation authorities, who had decided to limit the Germans' cinematic diet to Hollywood comedies and musicals. Staudte then turned to the Soviet Zone, where he directed The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), the compelling story of a concentration camp survivor (Hildegard Knef) and a shell-shocked veteran who attempt to reconstruct their lives in the rubble of post-war Berlin. In 1948-49 he followed with Rotation, the story of a working-class family drawn into the resistance—not unlike some members of Weisenborn’s group described in The Illegals. (The Murderers Are Among Us has long been recognized as a classic, but Rotation has only recently been made available in the U.S. on DVD.)

Weisenborn also struggled to regain a foothold in the postwar German movie industry. Like many other survivors of resistance organizations, he was unwelcome in East Germany as a non-Communist, and suspect in West Germany as a "traitor" who had contributed to Germany’s defeat. Weisenborn soon joined forces with Falk Harnack, a young director with an even more extraordinary resistance pedigree. Harnack was the younger brother of Arvid Harnack, a central figure in the Red Orchestra. (The meat hooks shown in the Valkyrie execution scenes were originally installed to execute Arvid Harnack and other Red Orchestra resisters in late 1942.)

Falk Harnack, who fully supported his brother’s principles, had been drafted into the German Army in 1941. In late 1942, as his brother was awaiting execution, Falk was contacted by members of the White Rose, who asked him to broker a connection between them and Berlin resistance circles. Harnack tried to set up a meeting with his cousin, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was deeply involved in the military conspiracy against Hitler. But the students from the White Rose were arrested in February, before the meeting could take place, and executed in early 1943. (Bonhoeffer was arrested that same month on separate charges involving the rescue of Jews.)

Falk Harnack was tried along with the White Rose, but released in the apparent hope that he would lead the Gestapo to other resisters. He was posted to Greece, but a few months later, Himmler signed an order to send him to a concentration camp. Harnack managed to escape into Athens and make his way to the Greek partisans. He fought with them—in a platoon of German deserters, against the German army—until the war's end.

Like Weisenborn, Harnack was keen to work in postwar cinema, but he also chafed against East German orthodoxy. He made his first and last East German feature (with a screenplay by Wolfgang Staudte) in 1951. The Axe of Wandsbek drew large audiences and strong reviews, but the East Germans banned it on political grounds six weeks after it opened. Harnack emigrated to West Germany the following year. He was welcomed by Günther Weisenborn, who was still determined to create a cinematic memorial to the efforts of the German resistance.

The two men were drawn to the story of the 20th of July conspiracy to kill Hitler, and decided to make a film based on the role of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Harnack would direct and Weisenborn would collaborate on the screenplay. The two men brought their unique personal experience to the project, but they also brought their movement’s perspective that Hitler could only be defeated by a broad national front uniting left and right. They launched their project in 1955, in the shadow of two films that took a more sectarian approach.

West Germany’s top film that year was Canaris, about the conservative German intelligence chief who had begun as a Nazi favorite and went on to join the plot to kill Hitler. The East German favorite was Thälmann, a hagiography of the German Communist Party leader, which downplayed the fact that he had contributed to the Nazis’ efforts to bring down the Weimar Republic, only to be arrested by the Nazis as soon as they took power. (Canaris spent most of the Nazi era at military headquarters, while Ernst Thälmann languished for 11 years as a Nazi prisoner. But the two men were executed in concentration camps within nine months of each other at the end of the war.)

In their film Der 20. Juli, Falk Harnack and Günther Weisenborn placed the Stauffenberg conspiracy in the broader context of anti-Nazi activity in the Reich. The plot offered a sober account of Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt, but its subplots added insights into other resistance circles. Stauffenberg’s secretary (a fictional character) was shown living in an apartment building that harbored a secret anti-Nazi leaflet campaign like those of the White Rose and the Red Orchestra. A resolute anti-Nazi pastor echoed Harnack’s cousin Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister who joined the army to help overthrow Hitler. Although the 20th of July plotters, the Red Orchestra, and the White Rose were never in a position to collaborate with each other, Falk Harnack was living proof that they were connected through family and social ties.

Der 20. Juli presents a politically sophisticated grasp of the culture of resistance, one that was later displaced by Cold War propaganda and is only now beginning to reemerge. Harnack’s film also captures critical aspects of the plotters’ motivations: officers on the Eastern Front are devastated by the mass executions of Jews and other Russian civilians (positions expressed by the historical figures in conversations and correspondence). Stauffenberg, a devout Catholic, visualizes his country as an inferno as he prays for guidance. The resisters conduct their underground activities amid pounding Allied air assaults, which Harnack illustrates with stunning archival footage of his shattered city in flames.

Der 20. Juli was released in July 1955, near-simultaneously with Es Geschah am 20. Juli (It Happened on July 20), a film on the same subject by renowned director G.W. Pabst. Pabst’s film was regarded as a straightforward, blow-by-blow account of Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt, perhaps more artful than Harnack's, but less politically sophisticated. It was Harnack’s work that won a special German Film Award for its "contribution to democratic thinking."

Over the next few decades, other facets of the resistance were reflected in German films, many of them made-for-TV movies. The Red Orchestra was viewed through a Cold War prism by television series in East Germany (1971) and West Germany (1972). In 1982, West Germany produced Michael Verhoeven's Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose); one of the characters in the film was Falk Harnack. This was followed two decades later by Marc Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days on the same subject. The 20th of July conspiracy was revisited in 2004, when the German television network ARD broadcast Stauffenberg, starring Sebastian Koch (from The Lives of Others and Black Book). The film drew a huge audience, but historian Peter Hoffmann criticized it for neglecting the civilian leaders of the plot and downplaying Stauffenberg's bitter opposition to the Holocaust.

The German films offered ample source materials for Valkyrie, but Singer’s film enjoyed the additional benefit of a $100 million Hollywood budget. Valkyrie is among the few English-language feature films about the German resistance, but it will not be the last. This year the small Utah-based Kaleidoscope Pictures is scheduled to release Truth and Treason, based on the life of Helmut Hübener, the Mormon teenager who led a small resistance cell in Hamburg, and was executed in the same Berlin prison shed where Red Orchestra and 20th of July resisters met their end.

As the Germans labor to reintegrate their fractured history, many other such stories are bound to come to light. It is impossible to forget that the vast majority of Germans tolerated or supported the Nazi crimes committed in their names. Nevertheless, there are few stories more thrilling, complex, and significant than the lives of the minority who chose to take a stand. 


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Courtesy United Artists
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg/Tom Cruise in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie
Photo Gallery: Beyond Valkyrie


Anne Nelson teaches New Media and Development Communication at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. She won a 2005 Guggenheim for work on her 2009 book on the German resistance, Red Orchestra, currently in development with Salty Features and Trilogy Films.

More articles by Anne Nelson
Author's Website: Random House page