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Zettel Film Reviews » Sophie Scholl – courage to celebrate and cherish

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Sophie Scholl – courage to celebrate and cherish

and in this was madness seen

and in this was madness seen

Sophie Scholl – Marc Rothemund

True heroism, like martyrdom, must be imposed by fate, not sought. This is a profound moral principle that exercised Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim. Again, Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons does everything he can to avoid his looming martyrdom – except sacrifice his conscience and moral identity.

This is not the only moral concept within this quiet, dignified, deeply moving German film that resonates with significance for today’s world. Much literature and most films, portray heroism as dramatic, with feats of daring and thrilling actions. This finely judged, beautifully played little film shows us heroism of a different kind: an unshakeable belief in justice, loyalty to personal conscience, and conviction unto death of the reality of the idea of freedom.

The story of the events leading up to the actual execution in 1943, of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and friend Christoph Probst, is horrifying for the sheer banality of their offence. As members of a student group, the White Rose, they were secretly distributing pamphlets daring to question Hitler’s conduct of the war and the likelihood of victory. On discovery they are drawn into a process with none of the strutting, grandiose black clad villains so beloved of decades of British and American movies. Like someone standing too close to a dangerous machine, they are caught by a tiny thread of circumstance and increasingly dragged deeper and deeper into its destructive mechanism.

Each meticulous step in their tragedy is efficiently recorded, documented and processed with a detached calm that makes one shudder when one recalls the sheer bureaucratic efficiency with which the same machine disposed of 6 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other selected groups of human beings. It is enormously affecting that three of the brightest and best of German youth are subjected to the same fate because of their refusal to conform to a corrupted nationalism and a cowed people. Perhaps because it suggests that the collective insanity that was Germany in the 30’s and 40’s was not a uniquely German phenomenon but one to which any society might succumb if the voice of justice is silenced, the rule of law subverted and fear becomes the currency of social life. Another conventional and comfortable fiction of British and American movies cast in doubt. And a thought for today.

The moral and dramatic heart of this absorbing film is in Sophie’s extended interrogation by Mohr (Gerald Held), one time rural policeman now grateful to the Reich for his elevation to interrogator with the power of life or death over his prisoners. Mohr looks more like a stern Bank Manager unconvinced by a cash-flow projection than a leering, jack-booted man in black with silver lightning flashes. A father himself, he clearly finds Sophie’s moral conviction and stubborn resistance disturbing. He can relate to her intelligence, her attractiveness, determination and self-destructive honesty. Everything except her condemnation of Hitler and the Reich. Mohr is like someone who knows the emperor is naked but is shocked when someone says it out loud. The acting in these scenes is simply superb, we see Sophie’s sheer naked courage and idealistic conviction shake Mohr’s blind unquestioning conformity. Only to be retrenched behind blank, dead, unthinking eyes.

The excellent Julia Jentsch (The Edukators and Downfall) plays brilliantly the intelligent, idealistic Sophie with her absolute commitment to justice and freedom. She moves towards her death through a system reminiscent of a strictly run, aseptic hospital. And at every step of the way, we see ordinary people, trapped in a nightmare they can see but not change. Each finds a way to show Sophie their empathy; from the communist prisoner staying alive by working for her jailors to the wardress who bends the rules to allow the three condemned young people a final cigarette and hug of comfort before their execution.

A great strength of the movie is that Sophie’s religious faith is shown but left entirely personal. Both in her interrogation and sham trial, she appeals to moral principle and humanity not religious belief, in her defence of freedom and her refusal to be silent in the face of injustice.

This film is as unsettling as it is moving. It makes one ask – how many of us in similar circumstances, would have the courage to stand against the sheer weight of social conformity reinforced by an atmosphere of fear and an implacable application of lethal power? Heroism indeed, serving a belief in the ultimate right to personal conscience and the indestructibility of the idea of freedom in justice. The intensely moving photographs of the real Sophie Scholl and White Rose group that close the film give them a final victory over their oppressors. Sixty years after their deaths, their story is told and their memory cherished. It is fitting that such heroism be recognised. If you can seek this one out don’t miss it. Inspirational.

(January 2006)

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