Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days opens with the title character, a plain college student, singing to an American record in English. The scene is a proper introduction to the story of a good, joyful German in Nazi Germany. Neither apologia—like the dreadful Downfall—nor another trivialization of Nazism, this gripping account of an ordinary citizen's ordeal under National Socialism dramatizes how faith in the state extinguishes life.
As presented in German by director Marc Rothemund and writer Fred Breinersdorfer, Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch in an intense performance) is a hero-worshipper, a freethinker and a believer in God, basically in that order. Sophie and her brother, Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), whose father also defied the Nazis, have joined a resistance movement in Munich.
With a band of other Bavarians, they meet in secret to produce hundreds of opposition leaflets and distribute the papers at the university. They report on the war. They encourage citizens to rise up against the Nazis. They paint walls with the word "freedom". They call themselves The White Rose. In the waning days of the war, they haven't a chance. Hans and Sophie are detained after exercising their right to free speech.
The taut, gray-tinged incarceration puts Sophie squarely where an idealist of her stripe would (and did) wind up: under constant interrogation—with none of Downfall's or Munich’s equivocation about the nature of evil. This picture does not recite the explicit philosophy of the Nazis, whose aims were widely accepted by the German people, as Sophie points out to her slug-like tormentor, played by Gerald Alexander Held.
But Nazi ideas—that man has a duty to serve others, rule by brute force, collectivism—are in every frame. 21-year-old Sophie bravely struggles to maintain her innocence, and she passionately asserts her individual rights. Locked in a prison cell with a kindly Bolshevik, clutching her blanket and pleading to God, she barely endures.
Director Rothemund and writer Breinersdorfer give Sophie the consistency of character such a person would have to have in order to do what she does. From a moment of hero-worship in the resistance's headquarters—caught in an upward look at her dashing older brother, a striking, confident young man—to a last salutation to the soldier she loves, Sophie practices her principles.
She wants to live, yet life is not possible in Nazi Germany, not as Sophie intends it. That the Nazis were far more monstrous with the Jews, millions of whom they systematically exterminated, is never far from one's thoughts. That they did so with the consent of the volk (which means the people)—personified here by Sophie's interrogator, the most evil character in the movie—is on full display.
Throughout her ordeal, which includes a heart-stopping show trial commanded by the type of snarling beast who rises in a dictatorship, Sophie, whose prayers to God grow more desperate, remains focused on reality. In a final gesture to what might have been, she cocks her head, closes her eyes and juts her face to the sun.
Her steady, unaffected gaze and her undying idealism make hers an unforgettable journey. Its outcome is like an earlier adjunct to Stanley Kramer's sterling Judgment at Nuremberg, which every adult American, especially now, ought to see. Yes, there were good Germans, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days demonstrably argues, but they lacked an intellectual offense, they were badly outnumbered—and here is what happened to them.
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The German-language Sophie Scholl: The Final Days on a two-sided single-disc DVD is packed with lengthy, historical extras. Chapter selections are clear and navigation is straightforward. Students of Nazi Germany will find much to appreciate here.
Historical interviews are difficult to understand merely because the subtitled pieces lack introductory notes and remarks and fail to identify each speaker. Read the DVD booklet's fascinating interview with director Marc Rothemund for background instead. These interviews (60 minutes) with Sophie's younger sister—her first on-camera interview—who later married Sophie's soldier, Fritz, Gestapo interrogator Mohr's son and others, offer a deeper insight into why the resistance was small and insignificant. Here is the rare sight of Germans talking openly about their nation's Nazi past.
They discuss the violent, repressed Nazis, touch upon widespread sanction of National Socialism and recall Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), which Mohr's son recalls with laughter, adding that the attacked stores were Jewish-owned as an aside. Sophie's sister remembers Sophie Scholl as a girl who protected a mouse and advocated assassinating Hitler without equivocation. Her testimony is the most dramatic—until, that is, moments after the interviews are over and a brief clip from the actual trial is shown (no footage of Sophie). It is positively chilling, proving that Rothemund demonstrated restraint in depicting Sophie's Nazi trial—which was no trial—since the truth, judging by this horrifying excerpt, is worse.
The laws enacted by the Nazi court were still being applied until the 1980s, according to writer Fred Breinersdorfer in the powerful documentary, Behind the Scene: Production of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Only then were they declared null and void. Director Rothemund, whose eyes are always searching, is an incredibly purposeful force here, commanding his set in a baseball cap, sneakers and a dangling cigarette. Directing a critical scene when Sophie and her brother Hans first face the Gestapo after their arrest at the university, Rothemund tells the young actors to be innocent. "Innocent," he instructs, "means you're not afraid of eye contact—even with the Gestapo."
It is also disclosed that the Nazi judge who sentenced the Scholls to the guillotine had been a Soviet commandant who had been present at the Wahnsee Conference where Hitler's Final Solution to exterminate the Jews had been decided.
Deleted and alternate scenes are also good. A particular cut scene develops Sophie's worship of American culture, with references to Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, and there's a poignant letter-writing scene, too, in which she writes longingly of joy, happiness and laughter, like a child relishing a bright future in spite of dark surroundings. The DVD's bonus features underscore the philosophical futility of the White Rose cause; that hopes, dreams and wishes were no match for a state ruled by force in which people fully endorsed the Nazi philosophy and everything that it implied.
Originally published February 27, 2006 by Box Office Mojo