If you were watching the 2005 Academy Awards closely, you may have noticed that one of the nominees for Best Foreign Film was a movie called Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Die Letzten Tage). Otherwise, you may never have heard of this moving film covering the last six days in the life of a young German student executed for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets.
It’s now out on DVD, and I recommend it. It’s not really a “Holocaust” film, because it takes place in 1943, when most German people were still unaware of the genocide against the Jews. Sophie, for example, because of her training as a nurse, is more aware of the mass killings of mentally handicapped children. Still, she mentions rumors that are beginning to arrive from soldiers on the Eastern front, rumors that only hint at the true horrors yet to be revealed.
Unlike many movies about the Nazi era, Sophie Scholl has no scenes of physical violence (even the execution is heard rather than seen). Rather, most of the action takes place in an office, between Sophie and the Gestapo interrogator Robert Mohr.
Sophie and her brother Hans belong to a small, six-person organization, called the White Rose, that creates and distributes anti-Nazi pamphlets. They usually spread them through the mail, but, on an impulse, when some pamphlets are left over, the Scholl siblings decide to spread them on campus.They know that what they’re doing is dangerous, that they’ll almost certainly be imprisoned if caught, but I don’t think either of them expected the swift death sentence imposed by a kangaroo court. Though some might find this talk-driven movie “slow,” for me, the speed at which things move to the final conclusion is shocking. I can’t imagine going to trial, and then learning that you’re going to be killed within that same day. Yet first-person sources laud the quiet bravery and dignity with which Sophie Scholl went to her death.
The movie doesn’t tell much about her life previous to these six days. Instead, we see her growth within this very brief period, as she calls upon a strength that can only be given to her by God. Yes, indeed, folks, Sophie Scholl prays, and director Mark Rothemund, though he mentions that he’s an atheist, believes that her religious belief is one of the most significant aspects of her character.
German actress Julia Jentsch’s portrayal of Sophie is riveting (Ack! I’m using a word movie reviewers always use!), both when she tries to deceive the interrogator and after she confesses. She and Hans have clearly worked out their alibis beforehand in an effort to protect themselves, but also their family and friends, and they’re so confident in declaring their innocence that Mohr is about to release Sophie—then further evidence against the Scholls arrives.
After Sophie learns that Hans has signed a written confession, she too begins to tell the truth, as bravely and confidently as she had lied before, remaining silent when asked to give evidence that would implicate others. It’s odd, but in tales of resistance against the Nazis, I find that a wide swath of ethical approaches seems heroic. There’s the absolute honesty of the ten Booms, which hardly seems practical, but is still admirable because of their complete trust that God would protect anyone potentially endangered by their truth-telling. Then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who completely forsook his pacifist principles to assist in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The Scholls, the ten Booms, the Bonhoeffers: all Christians, yet all acting on their Christian principles in different ways. Now, I’m mostly a pacifist, and I mostly tell the truth (or at least I like to think I do), but there’s no way I could predict what I would have done in situations like theirs. I can only pray that God forgives actions taken out of love for others, even if that love fails to abide completely by God’s commandments. No human love is ever completely untainted, after all. God knows that even better than we do.
Anyway, in some ways the most moving struggle of the film is not Sophie’s courageous stand against the Nazis, but her own struggle to come to terms with the fact that she will die in a few hours. There are no histrionics here, no attempts to manipulate the audience’s emotions, and, for that reason, I find it all the more emotionally moving.
1 comment December 17th, 2006