Thug Lives

Tsotsi and Sophie Scholl examine the moral quandaries of modern South Africa and Nazi Germany

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which also represents its country at this year's Academy Awards, is no less than the third German feature to be made about the doomed young leader of the White Rose, a Munich-based student movement that sought to turn the tide against Hitler by spreading the word about his craven abandonment of German troops in the disastrous battle of Stalingrad. It's not hard to see why some of Germany's top filmmakers (Michael Verhoeven and Percy Adlon, who spent their childhoods under Nazi rule, made separate movies about the White Rose, both released in 1982) keep hacking away at this sorry slice of their history. Along with her brother Hans and other activists, Scholl was caught leafleting on campus in 1943 and, after relentless interrogation and a farcical closed-door trial, guillotined without benefit of the 99-day grace period prescribed by law. Quite apart from its inherent dramatic potential, this rare instance of resistance to the Third Reich both scratches at the lingering sore of civilian culpability and provides an irresistible opportunity to rescue some vestigial heroism from this benighted period.

Sophie Scholl is briefly bookended by high-octane dramatic sequences and fleshed out first by intimate confidences between Sophie (The Edukators' Julia Jentsch) and her communist cellmate, Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf), then by a florid courtroom drama that may or may not exaggerate the degree to which Nazi apparatchiks felt threatened by this tiny group of activists whose end-run against their gargantuan force was as quixotic as it was admirable. But the heartbeat of the movie, which is directed with more diligence than flair by Marc Rothemund from a script by Fred Breinersdorfer, is a sober reconstruction of the cat-and-mouse exchanges between Sophie and her interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held).

That is this careful film's strength, and also its weakness. Based on fresh material from recovered interrogation and trial records, Sophie Scholl is painstakingly faithful to the facts of the case, charting this devout young Protestant's passage from protestations of innocence to her proud assumption of responsibility under assault from an interrogator increasingly freaked out by her steady dignity. The movie isn't dry—Jentsch is utterly harrowing as Sophie, barely out of girlhood and struggling to maintain her composure and her sense of self under unspeakable pressure. But the script is so intellectualized that I couldn't help feeling I was witnessing not two complex people locked in struggle but the opposed souls (and classes) of Germany. Sophie, emblem of the cultured, tolerant and enlightened humanism of the middle classes duking it out with Mohr, resentful member of a disenfranchised proletariat from whose ranks sprang Hitler's most loyal quislings. We learn that ultimately Sophie is sustained by her liberal upbringing and her Protestant faith, but while the filmmakers are at pains to avoid portraying her as an ascetic Christian martyr—we see her listening to jazz with a girlfriend and leaning into the weak sunlight filtering through the bars of her prison cell—there is little sense of what sets this seemingly ordinary girl apart and gives her her steely resolve.

This is a critical question, for if many films about the Third Reich (among them the potent 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary) ask which among us would have held up under pressure to collaborate, few have asked what kind of person would resist to the death. The truly amazing revelation in Sophie Scholl is that her interrogator, himself the father of a soldier fighting on the Eastern front, gave her an eleventh-hour out, a way to save herself, though at the expense of her rigorous moral code. For myself, I'd have liked to know more about what forces deep within this courageous young woman made her say no.

TSOTSI WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY GAVIN HOOD, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY ATHOL FUGARD; PRODUCED BY PETER FUDAKOWSKI. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA

SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS WAS DIRECTED BY MARC ROTHEMUND; WRITTEN BY FRED BREINERSDORFER; PRODUCED BY CHRISTOPH MUELLER, SVEN BURGEMEISTER, BREINERSDORFER AND ROTHEMUND. NOW PLAYING AT REGENCY LIDO, NEWPORT BEACH.

 
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