On February 18, 1943 a young German woman named Sophie Magdalena Scholl was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi flyers at her university in Munich. Three days later, together with her brother Hans and their friend Christoph Probst, Sophie was produced at the People’s Court and charged with high treason. The three young Germans had been secretly publishing flyers denouncing Hitler’s regime, his brutal ambition to dominate Europe, the crippling military offensive in Stalingrad, and state-sanctioned execution of Jews and other ‘undesirables’.
On February 22, they were convicted and sentenced to death. Hours later, all three were executed by guillotine. Hans was 26 while Christoph was 25. Sophie was only 21.
Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, is one of several recent German movies (i.e, Downfall, The Ninth Day) that take an unflinching look at the nation’s turbulent wartime history. More than fifty years later, I find the German readiness to confront their shameful past an exemplary act of national catharsis. That’s something Malaysia could learn from. No sweeping under the carpet on account of political sensitivity; no rewriting of history to mitigate the genocidal delusion of white Aryan ketuanan ideology. But I digress.
Directed by Marc Rothemund, this almost minimalist movie is a stark but true portrayal of a courageous few resisting the magalomania of Hitler and his state ideology. Drawn from actual archives and interviews, the story is unnerving as it is moving. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
The movie opens on Sophie (Julia Jentsch) singing along with a friend to a jazz song playing on the radio. It’s an ordinary and innocent prelude that hints at something ominous only as Sophie suddenly gets up, grab a suitcase by the door, and leaves for a friend’s basement studio in the city. The audience learns quickly that Sophie together with brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) and their friends are members of a small underground student movement called White Rose (sadly, the film veers away from more details here). These idealistic pamphleteers are ready to distribute a sixth tract; Sophie volunteers for the assignment thinking a woman would raise less suspicion.
Everything goes horribly awry when Sophie and Hans are spotted at the end of their heart-stopping paper drop along the corridors of Munich University. But that’s not the focus of the story, of course. Instead we are whisked away from the siblings’ arrest to incarceration, interrogation and trial, and then on to its chilling conclusion.
At first Sophie relies on her wits to deflect her interrogator’s allegations, but as evidence is produced, the stakes are raised, and it becomes a challenge of wills. Later, at her farcical court case before the notorious judge Freisler (André Hennicke), Sophie turns inevitably from student dissenter into steely-eyed conscientious objector, appealing to dignity, moral conscience and God as non-negotiable principles.
Julia Jentsch is wonderful as Sophie. Played with great empathy and sensitivity, the Sophie we see seems a little uncertain at first, like a girl who has wondered into the wrong movie. We see her looking out of windows towards the light, often pensive, sometimes in prayer, her face an incandescence of resignation and resolve. Light is an appropriate metaphor for freedom and hope, reflecting her unpretentious Christian faith as much as it exposes a people in thrall of evil.
The narrative is simple, but its message is profound, its foregone conclusion notwithstanding. Sophie was not a revolutionary in search of martyrdom, but a thoughtful girl who was full of life, enjoyed art and theatre, loved children and taught kindergarten. She wanted to change her country, but not through violence. Yet she also clearly understood that keeping her mouth shut was as good as justifying Nazi fascism. As Sophie herself announced during her trial, everyone knew the truth but no one dared speak up; someone only needed to do it first and she had chosen to be that person.
We learn from the movie that the values of dignity and justice were caught from her parents who themselves had suffered for their beliefs. At the end of the movie when she meets her parents for the last time, her father reaches out saying he’s proud of what she had done, that it was the right thing to do. It’s a poignant moment, as the whole family finally embraces in silence.
In a summer of big movie epics filled with conflicted super heroes and amoral pirates, Sophie’s story is an oddity. It’s not played in our cinemas (I ordered my DVD from a shop in Bangsar) and I don’t think it will anytime soon. Our loss. Comic heroes and real life martyrs are made of different stuff. That’s all the more reason to see it. A reviewer called it a ‘horror film’ but the real horror would be if 21-year old Sophie’s life does not move us to do more with our own. Sobering.