Saturday, January 27, 2007

Film Review #78: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Director: Marc Rothemund
Cast: Julia Jentsch, Fabian Hinrichs, Alexander Held

Two young German students have their ears against a radio speaker, straining for the lyrics of an American jazz tune. Their foreheads almost touch, swaying side to side with the beat. “Sugar, my sugar. . .” The dark-haired one, Sophie, though she’s laughing too, is concentrating hard. She’s the one who catches the chorus and sings the fast part perfectly. The next day, when the Gestapo arrest Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) and her medical student brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University, Sophie’s stunned friend Gisela looks away as Sophie passes close by.

Director Marc Rothemund’s dramatization of the capture, interrogation and show trial of three members of The White Rose does not use the heavy, tragic Wagnerian score you’d expect from Hollywood for such a subject. Besides the opening scene’s light-hearted jazz, Sophie listens to Schubert. Then a spare, percussive theme recurs – it first infuses the moments when she and her brother place stacks of flyers in the university’s massive stone atrium with a sudden electric tension about the danger of an action we take for granted. The same theme repeats austerely, accompanying this small woman as she’s hustled across vast plazas and into tiny cells in the story’s straightforward march to execution.

Already having won major European awards for Best Director and Best Actress, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days opened in the US last February on the anniversary date of that arrest and was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

German audiences know the story of the White Rose well and particularly revere Sophie for her grit. On February 17, 1943, Sophie and Hans were caught almost at once after she impulsively shoved one stack of flyers from a balcony ledge, thereby catching an irate janitor’s attention just as students from a huge lecture poured into the hall’s center atrium. During the first of three days’ questioning, this self-possessed 21-year-old out-foxes her seasoned interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held). Once Mohr shows her Hans’ signed confession, she reverses herself and confesses too, but proves more than Mohr’s match as he tries to argue and offer her a way out. Apparently Mohr really did wash his hands in a corner sink when she refused to save herself.

Rothemund says dialogue between Sophie and Mohr comes almost verbatim from Gestapo transcripts, accessed in 1990 after East Germany’s regime fell. Though both Jentsch and Held are adept stage actors, they manage a riveting, understated dual in close-up. Two previous German films – Michael Verhoeven’s The White Rose and Percy Adlon’s Five Last Days (both 1982) – do not attempt to imagine these sessions and conclude, respectively, at Sophie’s arrest and before the trial.

Hans, Sophie and a third resister, Christian Probst, went before Roland Freisler (Andre Hennicke) – that judge’s first chance to impress Hitler by conducting a show trial intended to deter others. The DVD, released in November, has extra archival footage of Freisler’s trademark savage tirades in another proceeding. Far from crumbling in tears, Sophie answers that the German people want peace and dignity. Rothemund’s camera pans the courtroom’s mostly military audience when she says this and catches a ripple of fidgeting and looking down. All three were beheaded on February 23rd, six days after Sophie learned that jazz tune.

In late January 1943, Germany was reeling from hideous military defeat at Stalingrad, Russia, with 230,000 casualties. Official claims of victory persisted until February 3rd, when the Reich simply broadcast funeral music. On the 17th, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called for “total war” – we hear snatches of this speech on radios when police are first processing Sophie. The White Rose had friends in six German cities and hoped to contact other resistance groups outside Germany, but were essentially a handful of student friends and their Munich professor, Kurt Huber. Sophie’s younger sister Elizabeth and White Rose survivor Franz Muller, both interviewed on the DVD, don’t make Sophie’s motivation a big mystery. Says Muller, “Anyone could tell the nation was headed over a cliff.”

If the film also has fewer Nazi trappings than you’d expect, this is more than low-key cinematic style. Rothemund, who says he makes films “to explore current issues,” wanted audiences to “slip right into the action” instead of watching from a safe historical distance. As if history is ever safe.

This review appeared in the 1/25/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in Make it Snappy: DVDs You Should Get Around To, a weekly DVD column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.