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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Plot to Kill Hitler (1991)
The Plot to Kill Hitler (1991)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // January 6, 2009
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted January 13, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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No doubt pulled out of their TV library to ride the promotional coattails of Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, this year's big-budget feature film version of the same historical event, Warner Bros. has released The Plot to Kill Hitler, a 1991 made-for-TV movie starring Midnight Express' Brad Davis as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the aristocratic Wehrmacht officer who plotted with the German Resistance, and who personally planted the bomb that almost killed Adolf Hitler in July of 1944. Far too short in its 93-minute running time to be effective as a history lesson, The Plot to Kill Hitler also shortchanges its dramatic elements, providing the viewer with a sometimes fast-moving but ultimately superficial take on this fascinating true-life event.

(Just a small note about this short synopsis: this description is what occurs in The Plot to Kill Hitler - it's not meant to be a rundown of the actual historical event.)
Opening in 1944 with the German Army securing the Staff Headquarters where Stauffenberg (Brad Davis) is holed up after his failed coup to assassinate Hitler and to bring down the Nazi Party, The Plot to Kill Hitler backtracks 18 months to Tunisia, where Stauffenberg is assigned with the 10th Panzer Division. Meeting Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Helmut Griem) during an Allied attack, Stauffenberg learns that he's been reassigned to Berlin. In talking with Rommel, Stauffenberg discovers that Rommel believes the war cannot be won, and that Hitler is mad - beliefs that the cautious Stauffenberg seconds, as the two officers feel each other out on what would be treasonous - and therefore, death penalty-worthy - statements. Just after leaving the impromptu meeting, Stauffenberg is grievously injured from a mortar shell, which causes the loss of his left hand and eye.

Returned home to Germany, he meets with former Chief of the General Staff, General Ludwig Beck (Ian Richardson), who, suffering from stomach cancer and wishing to end his days fighting against Hitler, suggests that Stauffenberg join the Resistance and more specifically, kill Hitler. Despite being reunited with his family, including his loving wife, Nina (Madolyn Smith) and three children, Stauffenberg requests active duty, and is reassigned to the Reserve Army as an adjutant to General Fromm (Helmuth Lohner). His immediate superior, General Olbricht (Michael Byrne) initially rebuffs Stauffenberg's not-so-subtle hints that he may be in the Resistance, but Stauffenberg soon learns that indeed Olbricht and Beck are united in their cause to bring down Hitler - soon to be joined by Stauffenberg. Beck tells Stauffenberg that the key to getting Hitler and the Nazi Party may lie in Operation Walkure, a contingency plan to deploy the Reserve Army in the event of civil unrest or an attack within the borders of Germany by the enemy - an operation that can only be ordered up by General Fromm. Feeling out Fromm on his loyalties to Hitler and the Nazi Party, Stauffenberg learns that Fromm is a dangerous fence-sitter who will support "whomever is left standing," in the event of a coup. Not getting a "yes" but also not getting a "no" from Fromm, Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and Beck push forward with their plans to assassinate Hitler.

SPOILERS ALERT!

I'm by no means a scholar of WWII history or this particular event, but one doesn't have to be an expert on the subject to recognize that producer David L. Wolper's 93-minute The Plot to Kill Hitler is going to have trouble covering the story in-depth - particularly when far too much screen time is wasted on Stauffenberg's marital troubles due to his Resistance activities. Was The Plot to Kill Hitler perhaps longer when originally shown on CBS back in 1991? Or was there a longer version released to theaters in Europe (which used to be a quite common practice with American made-for-TV films during this period)? Although I dislike on principle comparing two different films of the same subject (each movie should be judged solely on its own merits and liabilities), it's difficult not make the unfavorable comparison between Schiller's skimpy outlining of the Walkure plot here, and Valkyrie's Bryan Singer's meticulous, almost obsessive detailing of what was an incredibly complex series of events. Sequence after sequence are presented like shorthand in the film, with characters introed and then hustled off without the proper context to understand their actions, how those actions fit within the plot, and more importantly, their motives for attempting such actions. This is critically obvious in the portrayal of Stauffenberg, whose reasons for assassinating Hitler are presented as purely nationalistic (when explaining his actions to his wife, he states Germany would always come first before her feelings), while the film ignores almost entirely the religious aspects of Stauffenberg's actions. Besides his poster-board statements here and there about restoring dignity and honor to Germany, we're essentially in the dark as to who, exactly, Stauffenberg really is.

As well, we're only given signpost scenes of the other participants, who flatly declare their intentions and then leave without the slightest bit of context of how they came to be where they are in history: actively plotting the overthrow of the Third Reich and the assassination of Adolph Hitler. Stauffenberg's first meeting with Rommel is a good example. Besides the fact that it's staged rather awkwardly by director Lawrence Schiller (The Executioner's Song), we never understand how the two of them know each other, and why they both decide, apparently out of the blue, to basically commit treason by expressing their hatred for Hitler. There's a particularly good scene in the film where Stauffenberg discusses an early plot to assassinate the Fuehrer with junior officer Axel von dem Bussche (Rupert Graves), where we actually get a sense of moral outrage from one of the assassins. dem Bussche describes an atrocity he witnessed (and participated in) in the Ukraine, explaining how it changed him forever, and how he decided that it's his moral duty to atone for his sins. Graves turns in an especially good scene here (as do most of the accomplished supporting cast), but you quickly understand it's for naught when you realize you've never seen this character before, and you have no idea how Stauffenberg knows him. While Graves is excellent getting across the horror of what happened, the arbitrariness of the sequence negates the impact.

Not helping matters are the numerous scenes with Stauffenberg's wife, Nina, which seem designed purely to keep women audience members tuned in. While these scenes in and of themselves are utterly predictable and of only mild dramatic interest, I would mind their inclusion here less if the film actually took the time elsewhere to fully explain the assassination plot (after all, the film is titled, The Plot to Kill Hitler, not, The Plot to Kill Hitler...Frequently Interrupted by the Guy's Wife's Complaining). After their first few scenes together, we understand that Nina is glad that Claus has been spared after his horrific injuries, and we get that she's understandably upset when he not only goes back into active duty but then embarks on an almost certain suicide mission to assassinate Hitler. However, that dynamic of Nina not comprehending Claus' mission (frankly, neither do we, as it's told in this film), and Claus not making any great efforts to spare her feelings, is continued again and again, without the slightest bit of exploration into anything of possible real interest in this situation, such as Claus' culpability should anything happen to his family as a result of his actions (the imprisonment or killing of family members of Resistance members was common). Instead, we're treated to increasingly pointless scenes with Nina, such as a sequence where she takes her children to the circus, almost losing one of them during a subsequent bombing raid (what does that have to do with the story at hand?). Then, she's interrupting his conspiracy meetings at Staff Headquarters to bitch and complain about the hours he's spending trying to knock off the Fuehrer (would the real Countess Stauffenberg have actually done that, or is this the act of a Hollywoodized, TV soap-opera-y Countess, satisfying some network edict to put more female appeal in the story?). Or she's complaining to her mother about his actions (cripes, the guy is trying to kill Hitler - cut him some slack). Finally, we're given an aborted sex scene for absolutely no reason, putting the capper on what amounts to some very silly scenes involving Stauffenberg and his wife (played by Davis and Smith, to very little effect), in what is supposed to be a deadly serious movie.

The DVDs:

The Video:
One of the few bright spots with The Plot to Kill Hitler DVD release is the extremely clean, sharp transfer that shows up here. The full-frame, 1.33:1 image is deeply colored and correctly valued. Grain is apparent, but totally in keeping with the original presentation. Not bad for a forgotten made-for-TV movie.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround Stereo mix is a big surprise here, as well, for The Plot to Kill Hitler. Separation effects are minimal, but you'll hear them well enough when they come. Dialogue is extremely crisp and clean. Way more audio used here than the film deserves, quite frankly. There's a Portuguese mono track available, as well, along with English subtitles for the English language version.

The Extras:
There are no extras for The Plot to Kill Hitler.

Final Thoughts:
Perhaps there's a longer, better version out there of this 1991 made-for-TV film? As it stands, The Plot to Kill Hitler is far too skimpy on the details of the machinations involved in the infamous July 20th, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, to be of much use as anything other than a brief introduction to the story. Character motivations and historical context for their actions are almost non-existent. But we do have many superfluous scenes of Stauffenberg's wife complaining about his spending too much time trying to assassinate the Fuehrer. The supporting cast is excellent (within their superficial roles), but the leads achieve little impact. A rental for The Plot to Kill Hitler might satisfy students of this period, or die-hard WWII movie fans who want to see everything ever filmed on the subject, but the average moviegoer can skip this.


Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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