Making a film about Sophie Scholl, the 21-year-old Munich University student who, together with her 24-year-old brother Hans, mounted the most famous underground resistance network in Nazi Germany, is a challenging proposition. First there's the difficulty of humanizing a figure whose heroism, in contemporary Germany at least, is legendary. Then there's the problem of her character's evolution, when her commitment to her ideals appears never to have wavered, even for an instant. Finally, most viewers going into the film will know that Hans and Sophie Scholl, together with other members of their group, the White Rose, were imprisoned by the Gestapo and executed. A life so tragically and quickly extinguished presents maudlin temptations, but director Marc Rothemund ably resists them. His gripping, moving film focuses on a breathtakingly brief five-day period: the Scholls' arrest for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets on university grounds, their interrogation, their show trial before an infamous Nazi "blood judge," and their murder by state authorities. Percy Adlon's 1982 feature Five Last Days explored similar territory, but Rothemund's film benefits from historical material that's since come to light, in particular the transcript of Sophie's grueling Gestapo examination.
Julia Jentsch gives a brilliantly nuanced performance as Sophie, a fun-loving girl who likes marmalade and Schubert but also happens to be a rare beacon of conscience in totalitarianism's dark night. Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer suggest the possible sources of her moral strength, in the example of her father, a conscientious objector, and in her searching intellect and profound love for Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), which bears the seeds of her broader empathy for others.
But don't expect dramatic transformations: Her character's consistency, some 60 years later, is still unnerving. Flawlessly composed under scrutiny, she even convinces her Gestapo interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), of her innocence. Confronted with her brother's signed confession, she relents, but still hammers away at Mohrshe and Hans were the only members of the White Rose, she insists, and Mohr has the wrong worldview, not them. (Is it too perverse to hear, in her insistence on receiving "the same punishment as my brother," a touch of sibling rivalry?) This was a woman who, just before her sentencing, rose in the dock and fearlessly told her Nazi judges, "You'll soon be standing where I am now."
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Directed by Marc Rothemund
Zeitgeist, opens February 17, Film Forum
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