Sophie's choice: Confess to Nazis or face execution

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Several recent movies ranging from "Munich" to "Eight Below" have been "inspired by" true stories, although the factual connections are somewhat tenuous. As a fact-based drama, "Sophie Scholl - The Final Days," an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, is on much more solid ground. It's about Germany's most famous anti-Nazi heroine, who, at 21, was arrested and summarily executed in 1943 as a member of the underground resistance movement.

Sophie's story has been told before, most prominently in Michael Verhoeven's "The White Rose," but this new film, which was directed by Marc Rothemund from a screenplay by Fred Breinersdorfer, is the first to utilize previously unpublished Gestapo transcripts of the interrogation of Sophie (Julia Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs). The realization that we are, in many instances, listening in on actual proceedings gives the film an immediacy that no dramatist could hope to match.

The film begins as Sophie and Hans are captured while covertly distributing pamphlets at the Munich university where they are studying. (The student resisters call themselves The White Rose.) Both are arrested and kept apart from each other. Sophie's interrogator, the Gestapo agent Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), is a practiced criminologist and yet, in their initial cross examination, she is so convincing in her denials that he is prepared to let her go.

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The film is told entirely from Sophie's point of view, which gives the film a gathering atmosphere of inescapable dread. Although she is an expert liar who never once flinches or betrays the slightest hesitation in her responses, inevitably the evidence mounts against her and she proudly proclaims the rightness of her nonviolent resistance to the Reich.

Her interrogation scenes with Mohr are the emotional heart of the movie. We see how this young woman, so composed on the surface, is breaking up. At one point she asks to use the lavatory but once inside, she cries silently before striding straightfaced back into the fray. Mohr's steadfast demeanor carries its own rictus of pain: He is sympathetic to Sophie and offers her a way out if only she will confess. To everyone's astonishment, perhaps Sophie's as well, she refuses.

She attempts to convince Mohr and the others that only she and Hans constitute the White Rose but soon others are rounded up, including the father of three young children, who, along with Sophie and her brother, are put on trial by the Reich's "People's Court." (These hair-raising proceedings have been lifted from the public record as well.) Sentenced to death, they were executed the same afternoon instead of being held for the customary 99 days.

Sophie is such an icon that at times Rothemund can't resist adding a halo to her crown. When she looks through the bars of her cell, the sunlight gives her face a transcendent glow. Except for that scene in the lavatory, and a brief moment with her parents at the end, we never see her lose her cool. Sophie by all accounts was a fun-loving student, and it would have been more powerful, and heart-rending, if some of that quality had poked through the steely reserve. The actual photos of a smiling Sophie that are shown during the end credits are more evocative than anything else in the movie. They made me want to see a documentary about her.

Rothemund's use of the recorded testimony, while it gives his film a startling veracity, also limits his imagination. It prevents him from delving too deeply into the psychology of these activists. How does someone like Sophie, from seemingly out of nowhere, become a passionate defender of freedom in the face of certain death? The film depicts her Protestant faith as running deep, and yet we are left with the unexplainable. Perhaps that is all we can hope to be left with. Grade: B+

Not rated.

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