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Film Review

Sophie Scholl-The Last Days

(March 6, 2006) Most people with any interest in 20th C history have heard of the White Rose. It was a very small group of German college students in Munich, who opposed the Nazis and hoped to ferment rebellion in the ranks of the intelligentsia. They were committed, highly idealistic, naive, and ultimately heroes, who paid with their lives. The inner circle of 5 students included a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl. He was 23, she 21. Hans had served on the Eastern front as a medic and knew its horrors first hand. Sophie's fiancee was a captain in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front. The 5 students began to secretly write and distribute anti-Nazis flyers, printed on a friend's mimeo machine. Even though distribution was quite limited, mainly the university, this alarmed the Nazis because it attacked Hitler's military strategy, a particularly sensitive subject since an entire German army group had just been surrounded and captured at the Battle of Stalingrad, with terrible losses on both sides.

This time Hans and Sophie took a suitcase of leaflets into the main university building, put them in halls and doorways, and were leaving when they were seen by the janitor, who promptly turned them into the school police. This was the 18th of February, 1943. The Gestapo immediately took them to headquarters, they were interrogated for three days, tried the next day for high treason by Roland Friesler, the notorious Nazi chief judge, in a sham show trial that lasted an hour. They were executed a few hours after the trial, the 23rd of February, 5 days after the leaflets. After the war, the reaction in Germany to the White Rose group was mixed. Like those who tried to kill Hitler in 1944, some felt they were heroes but many felt they had betrayed their country. As the horrors of the Nazis regime were exposed in the Nuremburg trials, and to a later generation at the Eichmann trial, German opinion began to shift and increasingly to see them as authentic heroes, in an era that had very few in Germany. A few years after the reunification of Germany, the transcripts of their interrogations and the trial were discovered in East German archives. The Nazis did keep meticulous records. And it is from these transcripts that this film has been fashioned.

Most of the film portrays Sophie's interrogation by Robert Mohr, a police investigator who had been a small town policeman before joining the Nazis Party. He is contemptuous of the privileged life of the students. He skillfully unravels her denials, until she confesses and says that she must follow her conscience. Mohr, who has a son on the Eastern Front, seems to have some sympathy for her, trying to persuade her to say that her brother coerced her. Sophie is adamant, and tries to accept all responsibility. Mohr warns her that this could mean death, but she is unrepentant. The scenes in her cell, with another prisoner, are an opportunity for her to talk about her inner self. Her Protestant faith is strong, and her prayers moving. The trial begins the next day, and it is chilling to watch the judge hysterically shrieking his hatred and condemnation. The Scholls are brave and determined to be heard. The end comes quickly, in a particularly brutal way. As the credits are rolling, we see actual photographs of Sophie and Hans bicycling, at the beach, and doing the normal student things. They looked so young and so happy. Who could have imagined that they would have such reservoirs of conviction and courage? The word hero as been so devalued today, but they were the real thing. Could any of us have done the same?

The acting is absolutely first rate, with Julia Jentsch playing Sophie and Alexander Held playing Mohr. The film has an understated style, at times like a documentary, but the tension never ebbs. It brings to mind Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary in the film Blind Spot, but is it's opposite. Two young women in the same country and era, yet one with great conscience and the other with none. This is a truly great film, profoundly important, and should be seen. I think it will be as significant and moving for future generations as it is for us today. Now playing at the Embarcadero.

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