Film: Courageous Resistance

Sophie Scholl tells the shattering story of a principled woman in Nazi Germany

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Zeitgeist Films

A German judge scolds Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) for her role in the White Rose resistence in director Marc Rothemund's powerful drama.

Sophie Scholl — The Final Days is the latest of a small but significant group of German films about domestic resistance to the Nazis.

Michael Verhoeven's The White Rose, a 1982 film about a student revolt in Munich in 1942, is perhaps the best known, but there's also Percy Adlon's Five Last Days 1982 and Margarethe von Trotta's stirring Rosenstrasse from last year, about a protest by German women to save their Jewish husbands. All are based on true events.

This entry from director Marc Rothemund, a nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is also about the White Rose resistance, but it takes a different approach. It begins with the last political action before arrests, the 1943 leafleting of a Munich university, and then follows as one of the courageous, principled young members — Sophie Scholl, a heroine to Germans today — is interrogated, tried and quickly executed.

While there are other important characters in the film, including her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) who also was arrested and executed, this film does more than see events from her point of view. The camera virtually becomes her, seemingly inhabiting her mind and slender body as she faces the enormously sinister power of the Nazi bureaucracy as it bears down on her.

This leads to a shattering finale, an act of solidarity between Rothemund and his title character that both uses a cinematic trick and transcends it.

He's lucky to have a magnificently committed and disciplined young actress, Julia Jentsch, play Sophie without ever hitting a false note or letting her character slip into preliminary sainthood.

Jentsch, who was in last year's provocative The Edukators, has an everyday plainness about her that aids in making her character believable.

Her brown hair is shaggy; her face a little wide for her short body. But she also has such assured composure and such a resplendent aura that she is captivating.

It helps that the film has her wear relatively ordinary clothes that don't look out of date today, thus making it easy for contemporary audiences to connect with her Sophie.

Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer used previously unavailable documents of Sophie's interrogation by the Gestapo, along with official minutes of the trial, to present their story as accurately as possible with little melodrama. As a result, the film proceeds with a certain real-time-like exactitude and observation of the process of interrogation that occasionally flirts with tedium since there's little suspense in the outcome.

It starts with a fluidly executed set piece, during which she and Hans coolly but hurriedly place stacks of their latest anti-Nazi tract around the atrium of a campus building, racing to complete their act before anyone comes out of classrooms. The arrest and interrogation unfold the way they would in real life — she maintains her calm while at first trying to bluff her interrogator into accepting her innocence.

Amazingly, there is some hope of this working. In an interesting portrayal of her Gestapo nemesis Robert Mohr, Alexander Held plays the interrogator as a stern but not sadistic by-the-books bureaucrat, a walking example of what writer Hannah Arendt once called "the banality of evil." He allows the system to exist.

And yet Mohr isn't really evil — he tries to get Sophie to confess and seek forgiveness, presumably thus sparing her life. He might feel empathy toward her as he has a young son himself. But she ultimately accepts responsibility for her actions because she feels it's the moral, ethical and religious thing to do. And that gives her strength.

Rothemund is excellent at getting the rhythms of the interrogation right, even if he can't invent a surprise ending for the outcome. But he tries to lure our attention, make us anxious, with the almost ritualistic opening and closing of doors, recording of transcripts, lighting of cigarettes and walks down corridors.

I'll defer to Rothemund that the "People's Court" trial, too, is real, although it plays like a Kafka-esque nightmare compared to the slow-boil anxiety of the interrogation. A blathering hothead of a judge (Andre Hennicke), flown in from Berlin and decked out in a gown and cap so red they are a veritable conflagration in fabric, screams at and scolds Sophie, Hans and another young conspirator. She does get a few short words in — a succinct "you soon will be in my place" to the judge is especially haunting.

Because of her character's powerlessness in the face of the male-dominated legal process, as well as her inherent goodness and soulfulness, Jensch's Sophie will merit comparison with Imelda Staunton's Oscar-nominated performance as an arrested abortionist in 2004's Vera Drake.

Not to take anything away from Staunton, but Sophie Scholl is a lot more dramatically involving over the course of an entire movie. Sophie comprehends that what she has done is a political act, and she's feisty enough to not let the system's definition of her as "criminal" go unchallenged.

While this is only peripherally a Holocaust film — Sophie berates the court for dehumanizing Jews — it's useful to compare it to them. While they chronicle the way the Nazis tortured and mass-murdered Jews with savage disregard to law, this posits that among German citizens there were proper rules of judicial conduct to at least appear to follow even when the charge was high treason and the penalty was execution.

On the other hand, it's also useful to compare this to the current popular satire Thank You for Smoking. That film's funniest line — when Aaron Eckhart's cigarette lobbyist tells his son America is a great country because of its "endless appeals system" — has resonance because we know the appeals process has become the last refuge of our scoundrels.

But seeing how the kangaroo "People's Court" quickly convicted and then killed Sophie makes you appreciate a judicial system that allows for appeal. Grade: B+

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