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Forbidden games 

War, peace and the price of conscience in two new European films

If Italian is a language meant to be sung, and French is one to be whispered, the new drama Sophie Scholl suggests that German is a language intended to be shouted. No doubt Deutschlanders are more than weary of the popular lampooning of their language, always married to the demented gesticulations of Hitler and Goebbels. But Sophie Scholl is a homegrown film, and one that was immensely popular in Germany.

Sophie Scholl tells the story of a young woman who has become an icon in Germany--a frail, rather pathetic symbol of decency and courage during the Nazi years. In 1942 and early 1943, the 21-year-old Scholl, her older brother Hans, and a small number of other like-minded students in Munich formed an underground resistance movement that they called the White Rose Society.

In February 1943, Sophie and Hans were arrested as they deposited leaflets in the hallways and common areas of their university. They were interrogated, tried and convicted, and six days after their arrest, they were put to death by guillotine along with another man. It's a ghastly chapter of the period, and it shows just how terrified and complicit the German population really was. Despite the feebleness of the White Rose Society's efforts, the Scholls since have been elevated to a kind of secular sainthood in Germany.

There have been other treatments of this material, but this latest film has the benefit of the trial records that were recovered after the unification of the two Germanys. With this new information, filmmakers set their story in the last six days of the Scholls' lives. Since the outcome of the story is already known, the script by Fred Breinersdorfer is less interested in generating a plot than in placing Sophie Scholl--along with Hans and a third defendant, Christoph Probst--in a situation of moral crisis. The film becomes a solemn Easter week ritual--indeed, it resembles the passion of Christ in its swift procession from apprehension to interrogation to condemnation to martyrdom. The gold standard for such a presentation is Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, made in 1928, which featured a wrenchingly indelible performance from Maria Falconetti. As Sophie, Julia Jentsch is a more prosaic martyr. She bears a close enough physical resemblance, and she is particularly effective when she realizes that her initially convincing lies have been exposed and that she will not be seeing the sunshine again.

Sophie Scholl works best at the beginning and the end. In its white-knuckled opening scenes, director Marc Rothemund effectively ratchets up the tension as they distribute the fatal leaflets, even as we know that they will be caught. Likewise, the closing hours of Sophie Scholl's life are movingly enacted, from the frightening trial before an apparently demented judge to the last cigarette shared by the Scholls and Probst moments before their beheadings. (One can scarcely fathom what it would be like to know that one's 21 years on earth are about to be terminated by a guillotine's blade.) In its depiction of a powerfully ethical woman who is unafraid to resist evil and unafraid of violent death, Sophie Scholl works beautifully as an expression of human possibility.

click to enlarge Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) distribute leaflets at the university. - ZEITGEIST FILMS
  • Zeitgeist Films
  • Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) distribute leaflets at the university.

But all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, and in its middle section, Sophie Scholl's narrative line sags into a routine Nazi movie. The key relationship is that of Scholl and her Gestapo interrogator Robert Mohr. Initially the confrontation is quite dramatic, as the experienced investigator confronts Scholl with clear weaknesses in her alibi, only to have the young woman counter each with perfect composure. However, in a later encounter that is meant to be a pivotal scene between the two, our interest dies as the film runs through the textbook justifications for National Socialism, from the humiliations of Versailles to anti-bourgeois resentment. While the filmmakers make an admirable effort to humanize Mohr, they fail to make interesting the debate of liberal goodness versus totalitarian evil.

One wishes the filmmakers had included more of the leaflets' actual arguments. Very little is quoted in the film beyond references to their philosophical and theological contents. Readers of the leaflets will find a fascinating insight into the perspective of the concerned, ethical German, a paragraph of which is worth quoting in full:

"But our present 'state' is the dictatorship of evil. 'Oh, we've known that for a long time,' I hear you object, 'and it isn't necessary to bring that to our attention again.' But, I ask you, if you know that, why do you not bestir yourselves, why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right--or rather, your moral duty--to eliminate this system?"

According to this viewpoint, many Germans were weary and skeptical of the Hitler administration, but felt too powerless to challenge a government that would not hesitate to arrest, torture and kill its critics. As other broadsides suggest, the average German was bullied into dull compliance by appeals to the twin horrors of Jews and Bolshevism, while others took fearful advantage of the Third Reich's invitation to criminality.

The White Rose documents also provide clues to the question of how aware Germans were of the ongoing campaign to wipe out Jews. In one leaflet, while taking care not to belabor the "Jewish question," the White Rose Society gently reminded its readers that the 300,000 Polish Jews who were then known to have perished were, in fact, "human beings."

But the far more prevalent argument made by the Scholls and their comrades is the one in which Germans are urged to stop worrying about the Soviet Union (but well they should have--the vast majority of German casualties would be suffered at the hands of the Red Army) and turn their attention to the evil in their midst.

When denying authorship of the leaflets in the film, Sophie and her cohorts repeatedly protest that they are "apolitical." In a sense, they're right. Germany was suffering grievously for an excess of politics. The Scholls went to their deaths fighting a Goebbelsian notion of total war. In a haunting motif, Sophie is shown throughout her ordeal glancing at windows, straining for sunlight. There's nothing ideological about sunshine, but Sophie Scholl died dreaming of it.

Incidentally, this weekend will be the occasion for another religiously tinged movie about another European war. Christian Carion's Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas)dramatizes Yuletide fraternization between encampments of Scottish, French and German soldiers who are dug into crude trenches just yards apart in the first winter of the Great War. Carion's first film was the gently bucolic and surprisingly popular The Girl from Paris, but his new one lacks the same freshness of perspective.

While Joyeux Noël's climactic scene of international harmonizing is stirring, there's little new to learn here. That first winter of the war, many soldiers were likely still under the delusion that theirs was a noble enterprise, and a Christmas truce may well have been the sporting thing to do. However, by the time of the Verdun slaughter two years later, all notions of heroism were gone, and by the end of the next decade, the Great War had been thoroughly debunked by the likes of Remarque and Hemingway. Over the ensuing years, several great movies explored the criminal conspiracy against the young that was World War I, including The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory and Gallipoli. In comparison, Joyeux Noël is affecting but superfluous.


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