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Friday, Feb. 10, 2006

Standing up to the Gestapo

Sophie School -- Die Letzeten Tage

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Marc Rothemund
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: German
Currently showing
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News photo
Julia Jentsch in "Sophie Scholl"

In 1943, Sophie Scholl was 21 years old when she and her older brother Hans were arrested by the Gestapo for distributing antiwar leaflets on their university campus.

The siblings were part of the White Rose resistance group that strove to expose the harsh reality of what was happening on the German front lines (where Hans had fought, and gained firsthand knowledge) while exhorting the youth of Germany to wake up and smell the rationed, ersatz coffee.

Hitler was marching their homeland to destruction, defeat and terrible shame. The nonviolent White Rose group was minute in terms of size or power, but the Nazi government considered the organization enough of a threat to make the arrests, drag them into court and pass a verdict of death by guillotine, all in the space of five days.

"Sophie Scholl -- Die Letzeten Tage (The Last Days)," titled "Shirobara no Inori" in Japan, is filmmaker Marc Rothemund's account of those days, seen through the eyes of the courageous and incredibly clear-sighted Sophie (played by the brilliant Julia Jentsch).

Sophie had no illusions about Nazi Germany, yet she retained the buoyant spirit and the open, generous intellect of a young woman with a passion for life. The opening scenes show her giggling with her girlfriend as they listen to a forbidden American jazz record, the volume kept low so the neighbors won't hear. After that she walks to the White Rose basement headquarters where brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) and their colleague/friend Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter) are printing what will be the last White Rose leaflets.

Besides distributing these on the streets, Hans wants to place stacks along the corridors in Munich University. Christoph thinks this is too risky, but the siblings opt to do it, and the following day they take action. It looks like they'll get away with it too, but when two university clerks blow the whistle they're arrested.

What follows is a claustrophobic, painfully detailed interrogation process that apparently lasted over 48 hours. Brother and sister were put in separate rooms and assigned different investigators. At least Sophie had a decent, if mulish, officer by the name of Robert Mohr (played here by the wonderfully laconic Gerald Alexander Held). Initially, Mohr is doubtful of Sophie's guilt. She is beyond reproach, a "true German woman" of impeccable stock. Indeed, her demeanor and attitude during the questioning show her to be remarkably self-possessed. And Mohr believes her -- until some White Rose leaflets are discovered in the siblings' apartment.

From that moment on Sophie is transformed: She loses some of her cool, but she's also ready to admit what she did and face the consequences whatever they may be.

Rothemund's style is stark and straightforward, propelling a story that's backed by thoroughly extensive research. With the transcripts of Sophie's interrogation available, Rothemund re-creates those 48 hours with the passionate dedication of a historian. Mohr doesn't bully Sophie. He simply points out the flaws in her argument and she reciprocates by asking him how he could close his eyes to the evil of the Third Reich. In the end, the two come to respect each other in a way that's separate from politics, social status or personal fates. "I am here to carry out my job in the best and most effective way possible," says Mohr. "And I am here to stick to my beliefs and carry out my love for my country," says Sophie.

"Sophie Scholl" may not have the scale of last year's "Downfall" (about the final days of Adolf Hitler), but the impact is the same. It leaves the viewer breathless in a blizzard of anger and sadness.

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