Music Composed by: John Ottman
Movie Genre: Drama, History, Thriller
Movie & Soundtrack Release: 2008
Label: Varese Sarabande Records

“John Ottman successfully found the musical pulse
of operation Valkyrie and its emotional outcome.
Mission Accomplished!”

Operation Valkyrie was an emergency plan to be executed in case Adolf Hitler was killed or cut off, a possible outcome of a resistance movement to overthrow him and the Third Reich. According to it, the Reserve Army of Germany would take control of Berlin, disarm the SS and arrest the Nazi leadership. Α group of senior German officers took advantage of this plan and attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. The film sheds light on the real events that preceded and followed operation Valkyrie. Never before has there been such an ambitious film production that touches with remarkable historical accuracy the backdrop of the most important attempt against Adolf Hitler’s life. The first time the editor and composer of the film John Ottman read the script, he admits breaking out in a sweat. On a musical level, he knew from the start that he would face the greatest challenge of his career as a composer. But how did he approach a thriller that takes place during the second world war?

From the very beginning, both the director and the composer agreed on a musical approach that avoids a typical war film orchestration. After all, this is not a typical heroic second world war film, but a thriller, which uses a certain historical event that nearly changed the course of history. No typical orchestration means no military drums and no trumpets. Besides, what can you really do with trumpets in a film rich in dialogue,  where a conspiracy is organized behind closed doors? That alone is enough of a task for the composer, in order to keep the viewer’s interest focused. His goal was to find an unobtrusive way to tell the story on musical terms and track down the heartbeat of a film, which tells a story unfolding in the background, under absolute secrecy. Therefore, small and simple musical phrases or motifs are of key importance. The orchestra, enhanced with electronic sounds, performs music, which is an exercise in restraint and simplicity. A conspiracy materialized behind the scenes, couldn’t wear a heavier musical coat.

In order to have a clear understanding of the film’s tone color, you should consider the following: whereas in most films music speaks, in this particular one whispers. Τhe film needed a certain kind of musical whispering in most scenes, a sort of vibration that the viewers are able to feel more than to hear. And then comes the time to initiate operation Valkyrie. That’s when most whispering should be withdrawn and more intense music should be brought to the foreground. In doing so, when the operation is launched an immediate contrast is shaped. How admirably well the composer’s approach works while watching the film! Tracks like “Operation Valkyrie” (#2) and “What’s This Really All About?” (#3) serve as an accompaniment to those scenes where the Reserve Army of Germany finally mobilizes, after several false alerts.

While listening to the soundtrack, prepare yourself for the musical treat, that is “Midnight Waltz” (#6). What an attractive piece of music this is and how unexpectedly it comes. A beautiful piano waltz, a track of quite different atmosphere from the rest of the score, composed for a scene that was later removed in editing. I wouldn’t want to miss the pleasure of hearing it, just because it wasn’t used in the final cut of the film. Thankfully, it’s included in the soundtrack release.  

The outcome of the attempt on Hitler’s life is quite well known. Τhe bomb explosion will leave him unharmed, while the conspirators will be arrested and executed. The execution is covered by the piece “Long Live Sacred Germany” (#18), a composition of intense dramatic emotion. The music sums up the psychology of the arrested conspirators and their fallen morale. That is where the music transforms the film from a war thriller into a war drama.

To emotionally conclude the film, John Ottman felt that one more orchestral piece after “Long Live Sacred Germany” (#18), despite how dramatic it may be, wouldn’t work. An additional element was needed in order to push the viewers’ emotion to a higher level. “There had to be something different from the scene preceding it, reflective and somehow uplifting”, as the composer states in the soundtrack booklet notes. A choral piece with an exquisite melody was the perfect choice. You can pinpoint it in “They’ll Remember You” (#1). Featuring a choir and mezzo soprano Sylke Schwab performing lyrics from the Goethe poem “Wanderers Nachtiled II”, the piece offers a thrilling musical experience and provides the emotional climax the film needs.

The bomb explosion has just occurred and colonel Stauffenberg is leaving the Wolf’s Lair (the German headquarters in East Prussia) by car. The music from this scene is located on “Seconds Lost” (#8) and bears a sad quality in the first half of the track. Is the score trying to make the viewer of the film feel sorry for the presumably dead or wounded Adolf Hitler? Not at all. Colonel Stauffenberg, who placed the bomb, is rushed to leave the premises; the music is not emphasizing his physical movement, as it might be expected. An orchestral theme invoking sadness is introduced there and another version of the same theme will be heard later, when the conspirators are realizing that the tide had turned against them. This can be found in “I am Sorry” (#13).

The essence of this theme of sadness won’t be clarified until the end credits of the film. There, a beautiful, yet full of sorrow, choral melody makes a powerful musical statement concerning the conspirators and their tragic fate. “They’ll Remember You” (#1) is the track where the hymn for the conspirators can be found, a hymn of sacrifice for those who believed in a better Germany, without Hitler and the Third Reich, and wanted to end the second world war. So, after the end credits roll, the viewer has a broader view of the music’s importance while colonel Stauffenberg was leaving the Wolf’s Lair. What the score is really doing there, is foreshadowing the fate of the conspirators. Music has a most telling ability in revealing a future setting. The viewer of the film is unaware of the tragedy that is about to happen, while watching the proceedings after the bomb explosion. A very nice touch on the aforementioned scene, where the music brings emotion and depth to the ongoing action, beyond the usual or expected musical approach.

In spite of the fact that a large amount of music whispers, the soundtrack of Valkyrie contains some of the best moments of composer John Ottman. His music enhances the film, giving breath to the unseen actions and illustrating determination when the plot is initiated. All the way through the end of the film, the music works less in the foreground and more in the background, but it’s always so carefully crafted and very much to the point. John Ottman successfully found the musical pulse of operation Valkyrie and its emotional outcome. Mission Accomplished!

Track List:

01. They’ll Remember You (4:20)
02. Operation Valkyrie (5:11)
03. What’s This Really All About? (3:44)
04. Bunker Bust (3:45)
05. March 13 Attempt (3:38)
06. Midnight Waltz (2:11)
07. A Place to Change (4:09)
08. Seconds Lost (3:34)
09. Getting the Signature (4:04)
10. The Officer’s Club (2:37) – Performed by Katharine Mehrling
11. The Way It Should Go (3:24)
12. If I Were That Man/To the Berghof (2:21)
13. I’m Sorry (3:04)
14. Important Call (4:07)
15. No More Indecision (2:31)
16. Olbricht Gives the Order (3:18)
17. Operation Terminated (1:16)
18. Long Live Sacred Germany (6:13)

Total Time: 63:27

The tracks that stand out are noted with bold letters

Score Rating: * * * *