Yes, it’s true. Germany has a fondness for Holocaust dramas. So, too, does America, apparently. Of the 15 German films submitted since 1990 for Academy Award consideration, six have had an explicit connection to Hitler. Five of those landed Oscar nominations. Of the nine German films that weren’t about World War II, only one was nominated for an Oscar. In the world’s view, it would seem, Germany and Nazis go hand-in-hand--like chocolate and peanut butter or America and shotgun diplomacy.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days does take place during World War II. And it is based on a true story. The script is even formed from actual, previously unreleased court documents. But its resonance extends far beyond the confines of ’40s Germany.
Sophie Scholl (played by Julia Jentsch from last year’s Oscar-nominated Hitler drama Downfall) was a real person, a member of an underground student movement known as the White Rose. The film version of her life kicks in around 1943 in the college town of Munich. Sophie and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) have joined forces with a handful of other young students and are desperately mimeographing pamphlets that expose the German army’s missteps on the battlefront. Despite Hitler’s unwavering belief in Germany’s superiority, the country has been covering up catastrophic losses on the frontlines. It is, people on the street are starting to believe, only a matter of time before the Allied forces march into Berlin and kick Hitler’s ass.
Having run out of envelopes (there’s a massive paper shortage in Germany), Sophie and her brother volunteer to distribute the leaflets at a nearby college. This is a dangerous move, but the duo believe so long as they lay out the offending propaganda while everyone is at lecture they won’t get caught.
Early scenes of Sophie Scholl give the feel of an intellectual thriller. Our heroes are literate college students trying to write up and disseminate the truth. Sophie and Hans’ efforts to distribute their leaflets feel almost unbearably tense. Of course, the brother and sister are ultimately caught (thanks mostly to an angry janitor) and dragged before the Gestapo. There, a sour-faced party-line-toeing inspector (Gerald Alexander Held, also from Downfall) grills the couple.
Interestingly, Inspector Mohr is not portrayed as a rubber-hose-wielding villain. He is simply a cop who believes in law and order. As a modern Nazi-hating audience, we keep expecting him to torture his suspects. Instead, he engages in a sincere political and intellectual debate with young Sophie.
The meat of the film is found in these tense conversations, which take the film from wartime thriller to police procedural. Played in a tightly controlled manner by Jentsch, Sophie is one tough cookie. For every accusation that Mohr levels, Sophie has an excuse or an answer. Over the course of the interrogation, Sophie and Mohr begin to talk less about this specific crime and more about the general political climate in Germany.
Though branded as traitors, Sophie and her compatriots have done nothing but report the truth. Though it remains unspoken, even the party faithful know that Germany is losing its stranglehold on the continent. “How can Germany fight America, England and Russia?” asks Sophie. “Look at a map.” Mohr, despite the accuracy of Sophie’s words, remains resolute. “You are a Protestant? You believe in God?” Mohr asks his captive at one point. “Then you know that faith does not waver, even in the face of doubt.”
Mohr doesn’t want to bust her because she has dared to question Der Führer. He wants to break her alibi simply because he is a rubber-stamp, paper clip, by-the-book police officer and he’s doing his job. Is he an evil man? Of course he is. But his evil is of a much more realistic and everyday type.
Eventually, Sophie’s story starts to crack and she and her brother find themselves railroaded before a criminal court, where a hateful judge (Andre Hennicke) “listens” to the evidence. The film shifts ever so slightly from police procedural to courtroom drama, like some historical episode of “Law & Order.” It is here that the Joan of Arc-like heroism of Sophie really shines through.
What’s most astonishing about Sophie Scholl is the growing realization of how timely its message really is. It’s the true story of some young political dissenters who were accused of “aiding the enemy” by “failing to support the troops.” It’s a bit chilling to think we now live in a world in which the unquestioned support of our political leaders and their wartime policies has its closest antecedent in Nazi Germany.
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