Early in Marc Rothemund’s extraordinary film Sophie Scholl — The Last Days is a taut, well-choreographed sequence in which Sophie Magdalena Scholl (Julia Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), members of a tiny Nazi-era underground resistance movement called the White Rose, surreptitiously plant hundreds of leftover anti-Nazi tracts in a University of Munich atrium just before classes let out. Getting caught may cost them their lives.
Though it involves little more than walking around a large empty room and depositing sheaves of paper, the scene’s white-knuckle suspense suggests the possibility of filming Sophie and Hans Scholl’s White Rose resistance as a thriller or engrossing episodic drama. (An earlier German film, Michael Verhoeven’s hard-to-find 1982 film The White Rose, may do precisely this; now would be an excellent time for a White Rose DVD release.)
But Sophie Scholl has a more focused, intimate story to tell. Rather than recounting the whole history of the White Rose resistance, as worthy a subject as that is, Rothemund’s film examines six crucial days in its heroine’s life starting with her arrest on Feb. 18, 1943.
Drawing on once unavailable Nazi transcripts from Sophie’s interrogation as well as previously available records and reports, the 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 events in Scholl’s life, but from the point of view of her cellmate, based on the latter’s memoirs and not the then-unavailable interrogation records.)
Rothemund’s film sketches an elusive portrait of a young woman of formidable intellect, dogged self-possession and excruciatingly steady nerves. At 21, Scholl is old enough to have outgrown the brash overconfidence of immaturity, but not yet too old to have lost the purity and ardor of youthful idealism.
She is also a devout Christian, a Protestant whose faith is both a source of personal strength and also a foundation for her critique of Nazi ideology and atrocities. In private moments, when she allows herself to be vulnerable and afraid, Sophie opens her heart to God. She pleads for help and strength and, in an hour of extreme need, gladly prays with a prison chaplain, receiving his blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity. Under cross-examination, Sophie boldly invokes God and conscience as the basis for her resistance, the source of human dignity and the necessary guiding light to put the German people on the path to recovery.
An early extended interview sequence with Nazi interrogator Robert Mohr (Alexander Held) makes a calm conversation more riveting and suspenseful than the “action” scene in the atrium, as Sophie plays out a deadly chess game against an older and more experienced opponent in a stronger position. Subsequent interrogations morph from the strategizing of chess to the grace and power of a tennis volley as Sophie ably defends her actions, even turning the tables on her interlocutors.
As the interviews progress, there are hints that even Mohr, a family man with a son of about Sophie’s age, has become 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 that might seem heavy-handedly farcical but in fact is apparently a sober portrayal of the People’s Court under raving, haranguing “blood judge” Roland Freisler (Andre Hennicke), here accurately depicted assuming the offices of judge, prosecutor and jury.
Since Freisler is completely in charge and the outcome of the trial is plainly predetermined, without even a token argument from the in-name-only defender, one might wonder why Freisler found such strident abuse of the accused necessary when a simple “Guilty, guilty and guilty” would have done just as well. Yet Freisler’s penchant for courtroom histrionics is well documented (some of his trials were even filmed).
Sophie Scholl is part of a new wave of German films reexamining the Nazi era in a new light. Others include The Ninth Day, Downfall, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, Napola and Edelweiss Pirates. Where earlier German cinema focused on the horror of the Holocaust or the logistics of Hitler’s rise to power and the “final solution,” these new films are preoccupied with the moral choices of individuals to collaborate or to resist.
Regarding this new German WWII cinema, Sophie Scholl screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer has commented: “The first generation, who had lived through the war and the Nazis, were ashamed and despairing. The second generation — my generation, actually — were more analytical and more pedagogical. We were educating ourselves as to what actually happened. The new generation, Marc Rothemund’s generation, sees the Nazi period in more personal terms: ‘What would I have done in the same situation? Would I have had the courage to resist?’”
Sophie Scholl is one of a very few films, like A Man for All Seasons, that accomplishes one of the rarest and most valuable of cinematic achievements. It makes goodness not just admirable but also attractive and interesting. Although she is articulate and confident, there is nothing shrill or fanatical about its heroine. Sophie is an ordinary university student, a biology major who enjoys music and philosophy.
Faced with her own death, Sophie defiantly proclaims to her judges, “You hang us today, but tomorrow your heads will also roll.” Yet she is no social discontent or misfit. Her extraordinary heroism has nothing to do with psychological needs on her part and everything to do with the pathologies of the time in which she lives.
Content advisory: Much suspense and intimidation; a sequence of disturbing but implicit violence. Teens and up. English subtitles.
Steven D. Greydanus
is editor and chief critic of DecentFilm.com.
To check availability of this movie in your area, go to sophieschollmovie.com and click on the “Where to See It” link.