Bearing no titles except for an intro and concluding text, Der 20. Juli (1955) offers another perspective on the assassination plot that almost succeeded in killing Hitler in 1944.
Unlike the 1990 cable TV movie, The Plot to Kill Hitler, where the filmmakers tried to combine a backstory on von Stauffenberg’s war wounds, life at home with the wife and kids, meeting fellow plotters, and setting the plan into action, Der 20. Juli begins as von Stauffenberg (Wolfgang Preiss) returns from the front and makes first contact with conspirators, settling on Operation Valkyrie to take over Berlin after Hitler’s been neutered.
There are no scenes regarding the causes of von Stauffenberg’s war injuries or moments with family (there’s no hint that he has a wife and kids), virtually no music score to provoke audiences (save for bookend cues, and a pair for separate montages), and few action scenes. Director Falk Harnack goes for a stark docu-drama style that presents as many of the facts as possible, with a lot more side scenes on the ideologies and clashing classes that merged to form an insurgent force against the Nazi regime.
Much like The Longest Day (in which Preiss also co-started in 1962), Falk intercuts various causal events into a fluid chronological montage, and the film’s strongest (and longest) scenes deal with the meeting of minds, expressions of disgust and a need to retrieve German honour, as well as the gradual horror that von Stauffenberg and his colleagues experience when it’s clear Hitler survived the briefcase bomb, and their plan to reclaim Germany from the Nazis is rapidly disintegrating.
Von Stauffenberg’s stubbornness and ongoing disbelief of Hitler’s survival gives the iconic hero a tragic flaw, and Hitler’s supporters aren’t wholly shown as bulbous buffoons – just acolytes in a monstrous machine that was too big and too efficient to break down with one blow.
Hitler is never shown beyond hands and feet – he’s only heard in a distinct (and obviously overdubbed) thick Austrian accent – and to keep his presence within the narrative, Falk periodically integrates the most iconic stills and painted portraits of the Fuhrer, as probably would’ve hung in official offices.
There are also levels of bickering and commiserating which present the conspirators as less sleek and assured than in subsequent dramatizations; the need to take action within a crisis is there, but the indecision and shock are given equal importance.
Falk’s direction is very straightforward, and in spite of the high contrast lighting, the film does have a compact, economical feel which leads one to believe the film’s budget was very tight in light of the huge cast.
Suspense fans may feel a bit cheated, however, as the bombing at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair is dealt with almost perfunctorily; unlike the 1990 TV movie, wherein we’re shown how the bomb works and every step of the day is milked for maximum impact, Falk has von Stauffenberg visit a church the eve of the bombing, and then goes through brief scenes where the officer is driven (with an assistant) to Hitler, activates the bomb, slides it under the table, and leaves prior to a modest-sized blast.
In the TV movie, time is also given to a failed scheme to recruit a sympathetic guard physically close to Hitler who will attempt to shoot the Fuhrer; in its place, Falk (briefly) shows a failed bomb attempt that had an officer carry what’s supposed to be bottles of wine onto Hitler’s plane; when the craft lands safely, the conspirators urgently attempt to get the bomb back to avoid discovery.
Most of Der 20. Juli is solid drama – the cast, which includes a young Maximillian Schell – is superb, but perhaps to ‘open up’ the story and make it less masculine, Harnack and co-writers Werner Jörg Lüddecke and Günther Weisenborn added a glaringly fictional sub-thread that has a limping, homeless blonde named Hildegard (Annemarie Düringer) accept an offer to live in an apartment from officer Hauptmann Lindner (Robert Freitag) about to go on leave to the front.
During his absence, she becomes involved with the bomb plot, and von Stauffenberg meets at the apartment where she transcribes his dictations. When Lindner returns from the front and describes the horrors he’s scene at concentration camps, he too bonds with the insurgency and becomes an active participant.
For a while one can accept the pair as part of the historical characters until a scene near the end where von Stauffenberg is trapped in a hallway as Nazis attempt to arrest him. As he fumbles entry into a locked office, Falk cuts to the other side, where Lindner and Hildegard are in the process of sending details of the plot’s disintegration to other conspirators. The couple are later used as distant witnesses when the conspirators are lined up against a courtyard wall and shot for treason.
Also woven into the narrative is a grass roots insurgency that paint anti-Hitler slogans on street walls, and print literature for mass distribution. One senses either Falk felt there simply wasn’t enough factual material to dramatize without resorting to mundane personal melodrama, or he felt a need to open the plotting to show that sympathies existed at various social, political, and class levels – the disparate people in need of some momentum and solidarity to get the ball rolling.
A number of American and British productions have made their way to DVD, and a proper Region 1 release (with English subtitles) would add a less melodramatic perspective (and a fifties German one) to the insurgency dramatized in Bryan Singer’s recent Valkyrie (2008).
Other German attempts to dramatize Operation Valkyrie include Bernhardt Wicki’s Es geschah am 20. Juli / It Happened on July 20th (also 1955), the TV docu-dramas Claus Graf Stauffenberg (1970), the epic two-parter Operation Walküre (1971), Stauffenberg (2004), Die Stunde der Offiziere (2004), and the two-parter Stauffenberg - Die wahre Geschichte (2009).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan