In 1943, 21-year-old college student Sophie Scholl was a member of the White Rose, a nonviolent student group that published leaflets calling for an end to Nazi crimes and oppression. She and her brother Hans were discovered distributing the group's fliers at the University of Munich, and were turned over to the Gestapo. They were, along with a friend, interrogated, tried by a Nazi judge (who was known for determining sentences before trial) and found guilty of "high treason, troop demoralization, and aiding the enemy." The sentence was execution by guillotine.
Director Marc Rothemund's simple but effective dramatization of Sophie's final six days presents an elegant if bare-bones portrait of courage. Based on court proceedings, eyewitness accounts of the trial, interviews with family members and recently discovered minutes from the Gestapo interrogations, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days avoids imagined backstories or fictional framing devices. Instead, it presents a simple but harrowing re-enactment of Scholl's real-life martyrdom while, thankfully, avoiding the typical cinematic clichés.
Julia Jentsch's radiant portrayal of the title character is what truly makes this sober German film really get under your skin. Sophie is presented as a modest and unassuming young woman, but when questioned by Nazi interrogator Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), she proves unexpectedly cunning and tough. Calmly filling the holes in her story with convincing explanations and alibis, Scholl lies so expertly she's nearly set free. But when her brother confesses, she admits to everything but refuses to betray her comrades.
Much to Mohr's frustration, Sophie's case becomes an extended moral debate about the actions of Hitler and the Third Reich. When his own participation is challenged, he unconvincingly sputters party doctrine. Jentsch allows Sophie only the faintest smile of contempt as she answers, "You have the wrong worldview, not me."
Though her brother bursts with romantic idealism, there's nothing self-righteous about Sophie's resolve. It's clear there will be no reward for her actions, no possibility her death will aid her cause and no opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Still, Sophie remains rock-steady in her convictions. When Mohr offers her a chance to save herself (by claiming she was manipulated by her brother) she refuses because it would be wrong. Scholl is a quiet heroine who both earns our admiration and breaks our hearts.
Though all the performances in Sophie Scholl are exceptional, Marc Rothemund's direction is rather economical. His visual presentation has all the pizzazz of a TV movie. Oddly enough, this static approach allows the film's more intellectual arguments to resonate, much as a theatrical play might.
For American audiences, Sophie Scholl offers some poignant commentary on the value of the dissident voice. At a time when questioning the actions of our leaders is condemned as a traitorous attempt to demoralize our troops, Sophie's civic bravery reminds us how badly we need heroes of conscience today.
In German with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].