by Thomas Delapa
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) may be set in the last years of World War II Germany, but its gripping relevance transcends any time or place. At its core, this electrifying, Oscar-nominated drama turns on the age-old confrontation between moral conscience and unconscionable law.
Based on Nazi-era documents only recently released, Sophie Scholl is history stripped bare, distilling the tyrannical horrors of Hitler's Third Reich down to the case of one brave young woman. In early 1943, Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) was arrested and charged with high treason for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at her Munich university.
As Sophie is interrogated by the Gestapo's Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), director Marc Rothemund lets his splendid leads take over. A good third of the film consists of a series of exchanges between Sophie and Mohr, played out with pinpoint dialectical precision. On one side of the desk is Sophie, an utterly cool embodiment of Hemingway's grace under pressure. Yet Mohr's counter punches also pack a wallop, ranging from cagey questions to furious accusation.
When I watched this film with an audience, a palpable hush was in the air, the product of great acting and a sense of gravity so uncommon in today's degraded movie-going experience. In the script and the stark visuals, Rothemund dares to invoke the austerely spiritual films of Carl Dreyer, particularly his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. As serenely played by Jentsch, Sophie is a heroine made radiant by the blinding truth of her moral convictions.
The doom inherent in Rothemund's title adds to the tragic tone. When the evidence against Sophie reaches a tipping point, she admits her crime and never looks back. A paternalist sympathy grows within Mohr, who offers Sophie leniency if she'll only name other members of her "White Rose" student underground. Between the interrogation sessions, Sophie finds solace with a fellow prisoner (Johanna Gastdorf) jailed for her communist beliefs.
All during Sophie's ordeal, we see a woman who fully realizes the gravity of her situation, yet she faces her inquisitors with an unflinching resolve. We're also graced with her private moments: A longing glance now and then to the bright windows that separate her from freedom; and when she gives in to a torrent of suppressed emotions. In this grim world, Sophie's red sweater is an emblem of her humanity and warmth.
Alternating between rhetorical peaks and quiet valleys, Rothemund transports us again during Sophie's trial. In a display of verbal fireworks, Sophie, her brother (Fabian Hinrichs) and another defendant are given their day in a kangaroo court presided over by a Nazi judge (Andre Hennicke). One by one, the trio is brought before the judge, who mocks and badgers them in a chilling elocutionary style that might as well come spewing from the mouth of Hitler or Goebbels.
This harrowing movie--now on DVD--reminds us of the sheer power of words, whether used as propaganda for warmongers or as fodder for peacemakers. At the risk of her own life and all her precious hopes and dreams, Sophie eloquently objects to Hitler's vision for a new world order.
A risk-taker on many levels, Rothemund suggests that Sophie's Christian beliefs are the direct source of her political ones. Yet in Sophie's theology, her prayers are to a God of love and truth, not war.
(Originally published in Boulder Weekly [USA], 4/13/06)