As Nazi Germany wages war and genocide upon Europe, a small but vocal resistance movement, the White Rose, tries to end the horror through peaceful protest. One of the female members of this resistance is Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) who takes on the dangerous mission to distribute leaflets to the population of Munich with her brother Hans (Fabian Hinricks). Their idealistic hope is to convince the people to rise against the Nazi military machine and end the war in Sophie Scholl – The Final Days.”
Sophie Scholl” is a simply structured film, but don’t let the simplicity of its four parts, centered on Sophie, fool you. Part one shows the members of the White Rose as they prepare a massive distribution campaign to blanket the public places of Munich with their leaflets. We get a sense of their intellectual idealism and genuine peace-loving fervor of the college students laying their lives on the line against the Nazi bureaucracy and war machine.
The next part involves Sophie and Hans’s arrest and, mainly her, interrogation by Gestapo agent Robert Mohr (Alexander Held). This lengthy sequence is beautifully crafted as Sophie, at first, denies the accusations of treachery and nearly convinces her accuser. When she is found out, the story, by Fred Breinersdorfer (based on the actual transcripts of her interrogation and trial and death sentence), is always convincing and never preachy. Sophie is firm in her beliefs and conviction that the Nazi regime must fall and almost sways her interrogator of her righteous beliefs. There is an incredible amount of chemistry between the two actors in these extended scenes. Mixed in with the questioning sessions is the relationship that takes place between Sophie and her cellmate, Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf), and their developing friendship rings very true.
Part three follows the trial presided over by Judge Roland Freisler (Andre Hennicke). If you have ever seen documentary footage of the Nazi trials against the resistance movement, you will see the same shouting, bullying and berating that the judges inflicted on their helpless prisoners. The trappings of legitimate trial proceedings are shown as the sham they were, captured expertly by director Marc Rothemund and his team both in front and behind the camera.
The last part, though dealing with the untimely end of Sophie, Hans and co-conspirator Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter), is done with dignity and honor by the trio. The execution, by an unexpected implement of death, prompted me to investigate its veracity. The filmmakers did their homework and this, like the rest of the film, rings incredibly true.
Technical credits are top rate across the board. Camera work by Martin Langer is nicely lighted with a hint of sepia to give an accurate period feel. His lensing puts the viewer in the midst of the conflicts. Set designer Jana Karen gives the period drama a genuine Nazi Germany look just prior to the coming destruction by the Allies. It is done in a minimalist way with the occasional well-placed car or building that maintains the World War Two timeline. Costume (by Natascha Curtius-Noss) is in keeping with the rest of the solid techs.
Julia Jentsch anchors the film as the title character but each of the other actors supporting her is convincingly realistic, too. Like last year’s Downfall,” there is not an ounce of waste in this fascinating character study of honor, dignity and belief in what is good and just. 2005 was a good year for foreign films and “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days” is one of the best. It is also the German entry as a contender for the best foreign language Oscar. Good luck! I give it an A.
Director Marc Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer utilize their access to original interrogation records just uncovered in 1990 as well as relatives of those involved to recreate a very specific time in Munich. Only six days - February 16th through the 22nd - charts the arrest of the famous White Rose resistance siblings to their execution in "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days."
The Germans have been on a roll of late, airing out their Nazi past in films like "Blind Spot: Hitler's secretary," whose subject compares her naivety to the bravery of Scholl, to last year's foreign language nominee "Downfall." While this story has been visited before, in Michael Verhoeven's 1982 "The White Rose" and Percy Adlon's 1982 film "Five Last Days," this is the first time the story has been told from Scholl's perspective and the first time it has been carried through to the very end. If you think the subject matter, which largely consists of an interrogation, sounds dry - guess again. Julia Jentsch ("The Edukators," "Downfall") gives an amazing performance, one which has won her Berlin's Silver Bear, the European Film Award and the German Film Award, and she's neatly matched with Gerald Alexander Held ("Downfall") as the professional interrogator Robert Mohr who is by turns outwitted, outraged and moved by the young girl he's charged with indicting.
At first "Sophie Scholl" might seem bewildering to the uninitiated. We're given next to no information on The White Rose, only given witness to a bunch of college students and a mimeograph machine. We have no background as to why they are so impassioned, just thrown into the story right before Sophie and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs, "Schussangst (Gun-shy)" place stacks of anti-Hitler leaflets out in the open of their university. Sophie cannot resist shoving a stack over a balcony and the duo don't make it down the staircase before they are arrested.
Sophie is incredibly cool under pressure, insisting calmly that she had nothing to do with the content, only the inability to resist the prank of pushing the papers. After hours of grueling questioning, she's made it all the way to exit when her release form is whisked away - it has been discovered her father served time for an anti-Hitler statement. When Mohr presents her with her brother's confession, she backs down, admits the crime and says she's proud of it. Her remaining days will be spent trying to convince Mohr that she and her brother were the only perpetrators and why it is so logical that Hitler must be defeated. Over the course of the film, we're given all we need to know about why the Scholls did what they did.
"Sophie Scholl" features a lot of feint and parry both before and after Sophie's admission. This is a film about doing the right thing and standing up for one's beliefs and it is one of the rare, if only, cases where a Nazi resistance fighter appears to have won the admiration of her accusers. The man who carried out 3,000 executions noted that no one ever walked taller to their death. We can see in Mohr's eyes that he is affected by the words of a twenty-one year old ('the weaker sex' as he's called her earlier). He is also fairly astonished when he provides the girl a way out and she refuses to take it. Even a prison matron bends the rules, allowing Sophie, her brother and the friend who shared their fate, Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter, "Before the Fall"), final time and a final smoke together.
But there is one who is not moved. In the film's third act, the trial which precedes the astonishingly immediate execution, the 'blood judge' Roland Freisler (André Hennicke, "Downfall") spits and rages his fury, cowing any inclination the accuseds' lawyers may have had to defend them (they had little as it turns out). The three on trial have three very different responses. Probst, a father of three, begs for his life claiming mental despondency for his acts (his only crime? authorship of some words found on Hans' person that were never distributed). Hans, a German soldier, makes a political case very clearly. Sophie retains her philosophical approach, even telling the fearsome judge 'You will be standing tomorrow where I am standing today.' Their rational response makes for strong contrast to the judge's wild gesturings and the witnesses, many of whom, like the judge himself, were flown in from Berlin, are very still.
Rothemund has made his film very economically, using real locations wherever possible, almost all interiors. Sophie's many hours with Mohr are comprised of mostly one shots back and forth across his desk, very procedural, very Teutonic. The film is only opened up with Sophie's appreciation of the blue sky, a theme that recurs throughout the film, but not, however, at its end. The director's choice of a black screen accompanied only by the sound of the blade and the victims' last utterances is stark and effective.
"Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" might seem like one of those historical films that will be good for you. It is. But Jentsch draws you into it until you find yourself so involved, you may be astonished.
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