Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl – The Final Days is a riveting portrait of a young woman of formidable intellect, dogged self-possession, and excruciatingly steady nerves.
At 21, Sophia Magdalena Scholl (Julia Jentsch) is old enough to have outgrown the brash overconfidence of immaturity, but not yet too old for the purity and ardor of youthful idealism. She is realistic enough to be afraid, yet bold enough to act unhesitatingly, even dramatically when the situation seems to call for it.
The situation seems to call for it at the climax of a nerve-racking scene in a University of Munich atrium in which she and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) — members of a tiny underground nonviolent anti-Nazi resistance movement whose members call themselves the White Rose — have spent tense minutes surreptitiously planting hundreds of leftover anti-Nazi tracts just before classes let out. At this critical moment, Sophie sees a chance to underscore their actions, and impulsively takes it.
This taut, well-staged sequence suggests a thriller, and indeed the story of the White Rose might make an engrossing thriller or historical drama. (An earlier German film, Michael Verhoeven’s 1982 The White Rose, may do precisely this; now would be an excellent time for a DVD release.) Yet Sophie Scholl has a more focused and personal story to tell, dealing with events over six crucial days in Sophie’s life starting with her arrest on February 18, 1943.
Drawing on once-unavailable Nazi transcripts from Sophie’s interrogation among other historical sources, Rothemund’s film, like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, bypasses the events that lead its heroine to her trial by fire in order to contemplate how a young woman courageous enough to be brought to such an extremity acquits herself when it comes to the point. (Another 1982 German film, Percy Adoln’s The Last Five Days, covered essentially the same period in Scholl’s life, but from the point of view of her prison cellmate, based on the latter’s memoirs rather than the still-undiscovered interrogation records. Incidentally, both earlier German films feature the same actress, Lena Stolze, as Sophie, though I’m not aware of any other connection between the films.)
Sophie is pitted against Nazi interrogator Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), a savvy, tough-minded professional who suspects, but does not have decisive proof, that Sophie and Hans have something to do the White Rose resistance. The interrogation becomes a battle of wills between the film’s vibrant young heroine and an older and more experienced opponent in a stronger position, a deadly chess game even more riveting and suspenseful than the “thriller” atrium scene.
It looks bad for Sophie, though the outcome is perhaps not a foregone conclusion. Mohr’s interrogation is a (nearly) irresistible force; Sophie’s calm explanations are a (nearly) immovable object. Later, there are other interrogations in which the dynamic shifts from chesslike maneuvering to a tennis volley of power and grace, as Sophie capably defends her actions, even turning the tables on her interlocutor.
The sheer intellectual and emotional rigor of the back-and-forth between this terrible old lion and his cagey young prey is both crushing and exhilarating; my friend and colleague Jeffrey Overstreet compared it (brilliantly, I think) to the electrifying exchanges between Clarisse Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Throughout her ordeal, Sophie’s guiding light — symbolized by the rays of the sun, often regarded by Sophie with upturned face — is her Christian faith, a cornerstone of her critique of Nazi ideology and atrocities, and a taproot of her moral strength. A devout Protestant, Sophie unapologetically invokes God and conscience under cross-examination as the basis for her actions, the source of human dignity and the necessary guiding light to put the German people on the path to recovery. In her private moments, when she allows herself to be vulnerable and afraid, Sophie opens her heart to God, pleading for help and strength. In an hour of extreme need she gladly prays with a prison chaplain, receiving his blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity.
As the interviews progress, there are hints that, despite himself, Mohr — a family man with a son of about Sophie’s age — is ultimately somewhat taken with his prisoner’s luminous intellect and conviction. It is almost a kind of cognitive crisis for him: Here is this young woman, to all appearances the flower of German womanhood, an initially enthusiastic member of the girls’ wing of Hitler Youth, educated at National Socialist expense — yet she inexplicably rejects the world the Nazis are trying to build. “You’re so gifted,” he finally says in frustration. “Why don’t you think like us?”
This ambivalence and even-handedness is rudely swept aside in a third-act trial scene, which some critics have found heavy-handed and shrill, but which in fact seems to be a historically accurate portrayal of the heavy-handed, shrill proceedings of the People’s Court under real-life “blood judge” Roland Freisler (André Hennicke).
In the absence of historical context, the “trial” may be somewhat disorienting: Is this ranting, haranguing official the judge or the prosecution? If the proceedings are as perfunctory as they appear, the outcome as predetermined, why does Freisler find such strident abuse necessary, as if he were trying to persuade somebody? And if they aren’t, then why is there not even a token defense? In fact, though, Freisler really did act as judge, prosecutor and jury, and his penchant for for courtroom hystrionics is well documented (some of his trials were even filmed).
Beyond mere historicity, the scene dramatizes an uncomfortable reality about the Third Reich, which was after all ultimately driven less by men like Mohr than by men like Freisler. Granted, the Freislers of the party needed the complicity of the Mohrs to make it work. Yet the contorted, shouting face of Freisler is no caricature, but an accurate reflection of the face that the Nazi party unapologetically presented to the world — the face so heart-stoppingly brought to life by Bruno Ganz in Downfall.
Such madness casts a pall on all around it, even Sophie, though her last words to the court are as devastating and unflinching as those of any martyr saint. Once outside the court, the strength of her personality and character reasserts itself; in a crucial scene with her parents, the martyr saint is gone, and she is simply their beloved daughter.
Throughout the film, viewers are invited to put themselves in Sophie’s place: Would I have had the courage and vision to do what she did? In the scene with her parents, viewers may find themselves identifying as much with father or mother as with their daughter: What if it were my child? Would I be as proud and supportive amid such overwhelming circumstances? Not for all the world would I want to go through what Sophie’s parents do; but I hope and pray to see my children grow up into young adults not unlike Sophie Scholl.
This seems to be characteristic of the way the new generation of German films approaches World War II and the Nazi era. Where earlier German cinema focused on the horror of the Holocaust or the logistics of Hitler’s rise to power and the “final solution,” recent films including The Ninth Day, Downfall, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, Napola and Edelweiss Pirates dwell on the moral choices of individuals to collaborate or to resist.
Sophie Scholl is one of a very few films that accomplishes one of the rarest and most valuable of cinematic achievements: It makes heroic goodness not just admirable, but attractive and interesting. How many films do this? One may admire and respect Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but how much would one enjoy being her friend?
There are exceptions to the rule. Paul Scofield’s Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons is one. Sophie Scholl is another. Though she is articulate and confident, there is nothing shrill or fanatical about her. She is not simply good and brave (though how good and brave she is). She is an ordinary university student, a biology major, an intellectual who enjoys music and philosophy (her Wikipedia page also lists art, literature, theology, hiking, skiing and swimming among her interests and those of her friends). She is no social discontent or misfit; her exceptional heroism has nothing to do with psychological needs on her part and everything to do with the pathologies of the world in which she lives.
Though it is clear beyond a certain point how things will play out, the final scene still comes with a shock, especially in relation to similar scenes in other films. (Readers who haven’t seen the film may wish to stop here.) Take the climax of A Man for All Seasons. More at least was allowed some dignity and ceremony to the end; he was permitted his final words, and he kneels down before the block on his own, placing his own neck before the executioner’s blade. Sophie is afforded no such dignity. In the end, the masks that she and her opponents have worn throughout much of the film are stripped away, and there is only only naked evil and naked virtue, unmasked forever, even if one of the two sides hasn’t yet noticed.
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I just watched the Sophie Scholl film that you reviewed and recommended. After first learning about Scholl siblings in a German class long ago, I was anxious to watch this film. Anyway, I thought you would like to see this article about how Sophie was influenced by the writings of Cardinal Newman. I thought it was particularly interesting to note that Sophie and her brother asked to be received into the Catholic Church an hour before their deaths!
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