Rupert Graves Online: Film & Television.
The Plot To Kill Hitler.
The Plot To Kill Hitler Spacer

1990 - Warner Bros. Productions.

Director - Lawrence Schiller.

Rupert Graves - Axel von dem Bussche.
Review / Synopsis.

Keep in mind, this is a made-for-TV film circa 1990, and TV films in that era always had structural problems, because they were essentially written around commercial breaks. With that said:

The direction by Lawrence Schiller (strictly in terms of the mise-en-scene) tends, in the action sequences, to be a bit confusing at first, though it does all make sense eventually. The quieter discussion and domestic scenes are really quite well done, and I thought the "sequencing" was very well done indeed. In terms of "directing" a cohesive ensemble, I'll get back to that.

The production values are excellent, achieving a real 1940's wartime flavor replete with background stuff that is genuine and (for us older folks) chilling: Those scarlet Nazi banners hanging out of windows, Hitlerjuenger marching down the street, sign on buildings with wartime mottos. . . .

The film makers had a problem, though, which is always present in putting well-known historical incidents on film: This particular story is so well known, and the consequences of it (Rommel's suicide, the wholesale slaughter of anyone in anyway connected with the assassination plot, etc.), that the viewer already knows what has to happen.

Nevertheless, the first hour or so of the film is really exciting and engaging: The build-up of actually putting the cabal to kill Hitler together is dramatically sound indeed. After that, unfortunately, it does tend to drift into "paint by the numbers."

Nor is the film without wonderful moments. One of them is definitely von dem Bussche (Graves) describing his experience being ordered to slaughter Ukrainian Jews as he explains to von Stauffenberg why he is willing to commit suicide in order to make sure Hitler gets killed: When, still in tears, he says, "I always wanted to meet the Fuehrer," and then the tears dry up and he stares straight in front of him and says, "Now I will!" - it is, quite simply, one of the most chilling moments in the film. (A warning here: You'll need to turn the sound up in the scene; it was, for whatever reason, badly miked.)

Brad Davis does a really fine job of delineating a somewhat enigmatic figure. He seems to have really good chemistry with Graves in the scenes between them. Nor is his style a heavily emoting one, though completely convincing you that he is von Stauffenberg. But then I don't really think the character of an aristocratic career soldier would have an overly emotional tone; the most passionate moment for von Stauffenberg is probably when he tells his wife: "Killing Hitler is not an act of passion. . . . Killing Hitler is an act of reason."

I have heard the opinion expressed that Graves' performance is a bit over the top. And it is a very emotional one, to be sure. But the words and the situation are right there in the script. Personally, I think it is not so much over the top as that so many of the surrounding performances in the film are so flat.

For instance, I felt that Madolyn Smith, Countess von Stauffenberg, phoned her performance in. But another viewer protested my characterization, pointing out that the part itself was dreadfully underwritten and little more than window dressing, a not terribly convincing or needful excuse to drag in the wife and kiddies! It's a good point.

Helmut Lohner as General Fromm does a yeoman job with a truly abominable character, but he has a very thick accent: I had to listen to some of his speeches several times, because the interaction between Fromm and von Stauffenberg is pivotal.

A dismal performance is that of Helmut Griem as Field Marshall Rommel. He's only in two scenes in both of which he smolders rather too excessively but, for whatever reason, instead of being convincing, he just comes across as curiously uninvolved.
The one who is over the top is Mike Gwilym as Hitler. I expect it was the writers' and director's fault that Gwilym delivers such a caricature. (Always blame the director!!!) It is widely known that, monster though the man unquestionably was, Hitler's circle of acquaintances always maintained that, personally, he was charming, caring and, even when stressed, never behaved other than pleasantly to the women on his staff.

Had the character been played in such a fashion, in my opinion it would have made for a much stronger and certainly more subtle film: The contrast between Hitler's surface affability and underlying insanity would have made it much sharper. In the dinner scene with Hitler, for instance, had Schiller let Gwilym play a nice, hail-fellow-well-met sort of character, while everyone around him is quietly terrified at being anywhere near that madman, it could have kicked the tension up quite nicely.

But that isn't what's on film, and I have to stick to what's there.
Nevertheless, it does bring me back to the director:

Whatever Schiller's primary focus in making this film was, it was clearly not on working with his cast toward a coherent whole. The film is not particularly well written and is little more than a sequence of incidents strung together. This kind of vagueness and lack of direction (pun very much intended) makes for vague, indecisive films (examples available on demand) that are rarely fully engaging, because it is only too evident that the helmsmen were otherwise occupied and left their ensemble to its members own devices!

Finally, and this is really just a quibble: When people are going to be using a foreign language in telling a story, I wish they'd call in a language coach. This goes not only for the actors but the script writers. Von Stauffenberg is addressed variously throughout as Colonel, Count, Stauffenberg, von Stauffenberg and, of course, Claus. No consistency. Walkuere is mispronounced by just about every single person who has to say this very important word. Even Fuehrer comes in for mispronunciation.

As I say: No big deal, but it just struck me as, well, sloppy!
Recommendations? Can I honestly recommend the film? I would have to say, yes. Definitely, but with all the above reservations. Just don't expect greatness, with the exceptions of the performances of Michael Byrne as General Olbricht, Rupert Graves as Axel von dem Bussche, Ian Richardson as General Beck, and Brad Davis as Count von Stauffenberg - and in that order.

And, of course, it is a story that should be known more widely. Even now, nearly sixty years after the end of World War II, there are far too many who have forgotten that not all Germans were Nazis. As von Stauffenberg puts it: "We must prove to the world that, in Germany, Germans dared to risk their lives for [this assassination]".
J.K.Drummond.

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