Friday, February 24, 2006

Six Days in a Life

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days / Die Letzten Tage
(Marc Rothemund, Germany, 2005, 35mm, 117 mins.)

Sophie in her cell.

In the end of the movie "Downfall," we see Hitler's original secretary, Traudl Jünge.
Years after the war, in Munich, she passed by a sign with information about Sophie
Scholl. She learned that the day when she started to work as a secretary for Hitler
was exactly the same day Sophie Scholl was executed. So years after the war, she
understood that if you wanted to know what was happening, you could have known.
--Marc Rothemund to Salon (February 16, 2006)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

A household name in Germany, Sophie Scholl is likely to be an unfamiliar one to many Americans. A member of the anti-Nazi organization The White Rose, the 21-year-old nursing student was arrested, interrogated, sentenced, and executed for high treason in 1943. Marc Rothemund's Oscar-nominated film pieces together the last six days of her life.

Although some critics have described Sophie Scholl as "cool" (Stephen Holden) and "clear-sighted" (Peter Bradshaw), this is somewhat misleading. The film isn't manipulative or heavy-handed, but such descriptions imply that it was shot cinema verité style or that it's devoid of tender moments (most of which occur between Sophie and her sympathetic cellmate, Else Gebel). Despite intensive research on the part of Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer, Sophie Scholl is, unmistakably, a feature film and not a documentary.

The opening sequence, in which Sophie (the excellent Julia Jentsch, The Edukators) and her
brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs, also very good) distribute anti-war pamphlets at Munich Uni-
versity, for instance, moves like a thriller. The lighting is dramatic, the camera angles skew-
ed, the music (by Run Lola Run's Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil) suspenseful. It reminded me, coincidentally enough, of Steven Spielberg's Munich. And I mean that as a compliment. I got swept into the story right from the start. In a couple of instances, Sophie is also shot looking up towards the light. Granted, she literally has to look up to see the sky outside her cell, but the allusions to Joan of Arc are clear (and Sophie was a religious person).

There will be other moments of high drama, but the heart of the film is Sophie's intense
interrogation by Gestapo investigator Robert Mohr (the impressively ambiguous Alexander
Held; like Jentsch, a player in Oliver Hirschbiegel's magnificent Downfall). This section evokes Volker Schlöndorff's The Ninth Day. Also based on a true story, Schlöndorff's movie centers around the interrogation of dissident Luxembourg priest Henri Kremer by a Gestapo officer who fancies himself Kremer's theological equal. As with Scholl, Kremer refuses to sell out his compatriots. While he isn't sentenced to death, he is sent to Dachau (and fortunately, he survives). Both movies prove that talk can be just as compelling as action.

Ironically, I caught Claire Denis' The Intruder the day before Sophie Scholl--and my head is still spinning from the contrast. Stylistically, the two films couldn't be more different. While Denis' is built on imagery, Rothemund's is built on words (the opening sequence being a notable exception to the rule). It is, in fact, one of the "talkiest" pictures I've seen so far this year, but arguably, it needs to be. Scholl is, after all, charged with speaking out against the Third Reich. Words are her weapon; the only means at her disposal to fight against a system in which she has no voice. That she was silenced so quickly indicates how powerful those words were and how desperately the Nazi Party hoped to deter further dissent.

By making Sophie, Hans, and the other White Rose members into martyrs, however--a total of six were executed--the Nazis only hastened their own demise. Incidentally, one of the film's other moments of high drama is the trial itself, although I did wonder if André Hennicke as Judge Roland Freisler wasn't taking things too far. The wildly gesticulating Freisler is one frightening spectacle, but then cinema is littered with the antics of raving Nazi loonies. As it turns out, this crazed depiction was based on fact. The press notes quote Leo Samberger, "one of the few independent witnesses" at the trial, on the judge: "Raging, screaming, howling to the point where his voice broke, leaping up explosively again and again."

Samberger, a junior lawyer at the time, says that such behavior "did not intimidate or break the defendants." He adds, "Calm, composed, and brave were their answers to the sometimes shameless questions put to them." Two years later, after pronouncing "death sentences on about 2,295 individuals," Freisler "was killed by schrapnel in an air raid on Berlin." Considering that Hans and three other defendants fought for their country on the Eastern Front, while Freisler--as Hans bravely points out--did not, his death holds a special irony.

The real-life Hans, Sophie, and Christoph.
Sophie Scholl is the first film to look so closely at the life of this remarkable young woman, but not the first to examine the resistance movement to which she belonged (Sophie was one of the few female members of The White Rose). Rothemund's effort was preceded by Michael Verhoeven's Die Weiße Rose and Percy Adlon's Fünf Letzte Tage. I'm not familiar with either, although it's worth noting that both were produced before the crucial minutes of the Gestapo interrogations were made available in 1990. Hence, this sensitive, yet unsentimentalized take on the subject seems likely to stand as the definitive one. Sophie Scholl works as history, it works as drama and it is, in the end, as wrenchingly sad as it is uncomfortably relevant.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days premieres at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, March 12, at MOHAI. It opens at the Varsity on March 17. The SJFF will also be featuring the highly regarded Hungarian drama Fateless and the amiable Israeli comedy Metallic Blues, which premiered at SIFF '05. For more information, please click here. Images from Wikipedia.


  1. Could you tell me on what day, month Sophie was executed. Thanks Carol