Saint Sophie of the German resistance movement

Sophie Scholl - The Final Days: 116 minutes, Rating: M
Director: Marc Rothemund; Starring: Julia Jentsch, Alexander Held and Fabian Hinrichs.


Sophie Scholl - The Final DaysGerman resistance to National Socialism has often been overlooked or downplayed outside Germany, and maybe inside it too. The exceptions are the high level plot to kill Hitler in August 1944, and the lesser known, but no less courageous White Rose student group in Munich in 1942-3, the subject of this moving, gripping and tragic film.

Those who have grown up in the slipstream of the Third Reich, World War II and the Holocaust (which is all of us really) never cease to ask how it could happen and why Germans were so complicit and accepting of this most cruel, misguided and catastrophic political project. This film reminds us graphically that such opposition exacted terrible retribution. It is so easy to sit in a modern western democracy, have opinions and demonstrate with what we disagree: our political courage comes at a relatively cheap price by comparison. For Sophie Scholl and her fellow protestors, politics, living out one's religious convictions, and following one's conscience were deadly pursuits.

The film tells the story of a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, who with a close friend Christoph Probst, are at the heart of an underground student protest movement centred around Munich University after the defeat at Stalingrad. They are arrested after distributing anti-war leaflets on campus that are highly critical of Hitler and his government. They almost get away with it, but it does not take long for the Gestapo to uncover the whole operation. They are rapidly tried under wartime emergency powers in the notorious Volksgericht by the viscious and fanatical Nazi judge Roland Freisler, found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. The sentence is carried out immediately, in violation of the law.

The film is a faithful reconstruction of the process of the arrest, investigation and trial of the group. It centres on Sophie and her interrogation by a Gestapo officer, and is based on the actual transcripts. There is therefore very little attempt to use artistic techniques to enliven, or even deepen the characters. As far as one can tell there is relatively little artistic licence taken with the actual events, and the filmgoer looking for entertainment, special effects, flashbacks and character embellishments will be disappointed. Frankly if you are looking for a good night out this film is probably not for you. It is tense and gruelling, dominated by the terror of the process, and knowledge of the outcome.

One might question why Sophie herself is chosen as the focus for the film, over and above the others who are all appealing and brave beyond belief (see for instance this site). It is tempting to invoke a Joan of Arc-like image of the beautiful martyred heroine. The seemingly fragile woman with the steel will, moral courage and faith to overcome adversity. Certainly her responses to her interrogator, and those in the so-called court that convicted her are steadfast, principled and even witty, when all along she is walking towards death, and knows it. Julia Jentsch plays the role with dignity and style. She manages to capture the essence of this very seductive figure, her simple young beauty, her intelligence, full of young hope and idealism, but above all courageous in a way that seems impossible.

Sophie Scholl - The Final DaysSophie’s religious faith is moving. It is not intrusive, her prayers are restrained and do not ask much for herself. There is an air of resignation to her fate, although a prison window prayer before drifting clouds in a blue sky is reminiscent of “why has thou forsaken me?”, but with no anger. Temporarily the world is a bad place and baddies have the upper hand, but soon the tables will be turned, as Sophie tells Freisler when she points out that soon he will be in the dock as they are.

It does seem however that Sophie and her brother were reckless or even naïve, and had an opportunity to leave the scene before arrest, and that they also left a great deal of evidence lying around that made the construction of the case against them relatively easy.

So for anybody who thinks that Germans were all willing, silent co-conspirators during these dreadful years, here is powerful and apparently accurate narrative of youthful martyrdom to contradict such thoughts—a story that is redemptive for Germans, and salutary for the rest of us. If Sophie had been Catholic she would surely be a saint by now!

 

 

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