Director: Marc Rothemund
Writer: Fred Breinersdorfer
Stars: Julia Jentsch, Fabian Hinrichs, Alexander Held
I’ve mentioned on many an occasion that I’m a massive WWII buff. I like to think I’m pretty knowledgeable on the subject and I’ve certainly seen some incredible films, focusing on the the two distinct theatres of conflict and the myriad of battles within. We’ve also seen the quieter, more reflective dramas in the sub-genre. Downfall in particular was an unbelievable, introspective look into the Führerbunker during Hitler’s final moments and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is in the same mould as that modern classic.
It’s essentially about a young, twenty one year old woman, who was a student and member of the White Rose, an anti-war resistance group, that distributed leaflets around southern Germany between late 1942 and early 1943. When the film opens, the group has already been busy in distributing these around the major cities and Rothemund, the films director, focuses on the fateful sixth attempt at their university in Munich. This is based on a true story incidentally, the events did happen despite the ridiculousness and insanity of what unfolds afterwards. As far as I’m aware, it’s pretty historically accurate too.
The film opens on Sophie (Julia Jentsch), singing playfully with a friend before slipping out into the night and meeting her fellow White Rose members in a hideout to conspire against the tyranny of the Third Reich. This stark change in persona is deliberate and you can understand why she managed to evade suspicion for so long. Nobody would’ve suspected this young lady of committing any nefarious, ‘treasonous’ deeds. Their plans to walk into the Munich university, in the middle of the afternoon are laid out and despite warnings from the others about the Gestapo waiting in the wings, they decide to go ahead with their risky plan.
Sophie and her older brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) have the briefest of somber moments in their apartment before heading into the university the next day, packed briefcases in hand, to distribute the leaflets. The fraught anxiety and panic that must have permeated the air on the actual day is perfectly captured in this scene. It’s full of tension and you’re willing them to both succeed and escape despite knowing they’ll ultimately be caught. The person responsible for their capture, ironically, isn’t a member of the infamous Gestapo, but instead a sycophantic, little weed of a janitor.
This is a mere setup for the true intention of this film, of course. Which focuses on the harrowing, four days of interrogation and battle of wills between the young woman and her rabid Nazi captors.
This is a character driven, extremely dialogue heavy film and the overwhelming majority of the dialogue takes place between both Sophie and Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), the man charged with investigating her. I say investigating, but in truth, it’s more like a psychological game of chess in the early moments between the pair. Mohr knows full well that’s she responsible, but Sophie dances around his determined probes time and time again, always having an answer or explanation for every scenario he puts forward. In the end, it’s a small, throwaway detail in the apartment earlier, involving stamps that proves to be her undoing.
But these exchanges between the two, that took up a large chunk of the middle act of the film, were utterly mesmerising for me. I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen. All the more remarkable given it’s entirely in German. One thing that always strikes me about films set in WWII and indeed the stories that inspire them, is just how young some of the central players were. The likes of the legendary Dick Winters propelling the allied counter assault in France during his mid twenties. This was a twenty one year old woman, displaying a courage and steadfast conviction in her beliefs, in the midst of a horrific situation, that would put the overwhelmingly majority of my generation to shame.
Sophie Scholl’s unwavering spirit and determination is what I really took away from this film and I get the feeling it was the intended takeaway too. She’s a heroic figure in Germany to this day and it doesn’t even try to flesh out the other main players, like her brother Hans or Christoph Plobst (Florian Stetter).
The perspective flips back and forth between Sophie’s interrogation/chats with Mohr and her spending time in the cells with Else (Johanna Gastdorf), a fellow political prisoner and communist. Else gives the impression that she’s seen this situation play out countless times before and she does her best to convince her young cellmate to cooperate and perhaps live to see another day. That was never likely to be the way things ended for our protagonist however. Armed with her faith, something she turns to it time and again, she refuses to out her fellow White Rose members for a more lenient punishment. Her eloquence and dogged determination that she’s right even leaves the pro-National Socialist Mohr shaken.
It often feels like he’s looking to manufacture a way out of the horrible predicament for her and there’s more than a hint of sympathy and sorrow in his character. He mentions having a boy around her age fighting on the eastern front which perhaps explains it.
The final part of the film zips alongs, with Sophie, Hans and Christoph being brought up in front of the infamous Roland Friesler (Andre Hennicke), a man named ‘Hitlers Blood Judge’. There’s nothing earth shattering revealed during any of the court scenes, but like before, it was a fascinating watch and an insight into the sham that was the People’s Court. Friesler was famous for his hysterical shouting and shaming of the accused brought before him and the film does a fantastic job of recreating that whilst reaffirming the defiance of the young conspirers. There’s a short emotional, respite with her parents and then they’re promptly executed and I thought the way Rothemund approached the end scene was incredible.
Now for performances. I mentioned previously that this is a Sophie Scholl biographic and therefore it’s only fitting really that the woman playing her is the standout. Julia Jentsch wasn’t a name I was aware of prior to seeing this but she was fantastic as the titular character. Even the resemblance was eerie and she conveyed a whole range of emotions as she went through a living hell. Gerald Alexander Held was impressive too as the interrogator in chief. The moments between Robert and Sophie were my favourite parts of the film and that’s down to him in part.
Johanna Gastdorf was fine and André Hennicke was like a reincarnated Friesler. He perfectly captured the hysteria and vindictiveness in that weasel of a man. Fabian Hinrichs didn’t have much to work off but he had an odd, glaikit face that left me wondering if he was smiling every time I saw him.
The visuals were impressive for what they were. The large majority of the film was shot indoors and it looked historically accurate. The costume design and the court scenes in particular were standouts and sucked you into the period effectively. The CG used in the few cityscape, wide shots that popped up were very poor and noticeably fake. You can forgive this though, given the budget wouldn’t have been massive.
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this film from start to finish. It highlighted an astonishing story of bravery, determination and defiance in one of the most dangerous periods in human history. I’m sure there was other acts of courage like this in Nazi Germany, but none seem to have had the impact that young Sophie Scholl’s and the other White Rose members sacrifices managed. It was their leaflets, detailing the horrors of the holocaust that the Allied forces dropped on Germany in the thousands afterwards.
The film itself was poignant, highly emotive and featured a couple of brilliant acting performances and I highly recommend giving it a watch even if you’re aren’t remotely interested in the WWII period as a whole. Just remember that it is a foreign language film.