In the Face of Evil

Sophie Scholl relives the last days of an anti-Nazi hero

Apr 5, 2006 at 4:00 am
We all want to believe that in even the most dangerous or frightening of situations, we would have the courage to stand up for our convictions — that we would not name names, that we would not betray our friends or our ideals. Thank God, most of us will never have the chance to find out.

German college student Sophie Scholl was barely in her twenties when she and her brother Hans were caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at Munich University in February 1943. They were members of the White Rose, an underground anti-Nazi movement that advocated passive resistance. Charged with high treason, the siblings faced imprisonment or even death if they didn't recant, plus reveal the names of others in their group.

A devout Protestant, Scholl is considered Germany's most famous anti-Nazi heroine. All but unknown in the United States, she is the subject of director Marc Rothemund's film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The movie, which covers the last six days of her life — from her arrest on February 17 to her execution, along with her brother, on the 22nd — was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

Based on official Gestapo records of Scholl's interrogation and trial, which were discovered in East German vaults after the divided country's reunification, the film is a reconstruction of her ordeal — and an unusually straightforward account, at that. Sophie (played by Julia Jentsch) and Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) are arrested less than twenty minutes into the proceedings; the bulk of the action is her interrogation by investigator Robert Mohr (Alexander Held) and her subsequent trial.

The film derives its tension from the fact that we're watching a true story, and the same can be said for its understated emotional impact — understated because the film is never sentimental, and because Sophie is unnervingly calm and composed throughout her interrogation. The half-smile that plays on her lips is puzzling at first, until we realize it comes from a sense of absolute purpose and conviction that would be rare in anybody, much less a 21-year-old woman facing her own demise.

As the interrogation unfolds, Sophie communicates little fear or emotion of any kind, which quickly leads to a test of wills between her and her accuser. At first she denies the charges; she has a plausible answer for everything, and — outwardly, at least — seems relaxed and confident.

It's only when we see a cutaway of her hands, nervously clasping and unclasping in her lap, or the sudden look of desperation in her eyes, when she stares at herself in a bathroom mirror, that we recognize her true feelings. And only then do we realize what a phenomenal actress Scholl must have been to make an experienced interrogator like Mohr believe she might be innocent. (Interestingly, it seems he wants to believe that she is telling the truth.)

Only when faced with her brother's confession does Sophie admit her role with — and, in fact, her pride in — the White Rose. Buoyed by her faith and by her certitude in the righteousness of her cause, she undergoes a very subtle transformation: Her facial expressions don't change all that much, but a kind of peace settles over her, as if she's publicly claiming her act of resistance magnifies what was already a remarkable inner strength. That Jentsch (best known as the burglarizing waitress in the 2005 film The Edukators) is able to communicate this with only subtle facial and body movements is remarkable.

To the actress' great credit, as well as to Fred Breinersdorfer's screenplay, Sophie is not presented as a martyr, and the film's wise lack of sentimentality keeps it from falling into the trap of melodrama. But because there is only one brief scene of Sophie before the leafleting episode, the viewer doesn't get a feel for her pre-arrest personality. That has the effect of blunting somewhat the emotional connection between the audience and the character. Fortunately, it does not detract from Sophie Scholl's ultimate power. Though we know the story's final outcome, the trial scene and its aftermath are no less shocking and affecting.