Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl, the real-life, anti-Nazi martyr and subject of Sophie Scholl: Last Days, now playing at Film Forum.
Speaking out before her time
By Chad Smith
If historical movies have a tendency to paint with broad strokes, attempting to make complex and many-sided facts digestible for general audiences, then the new movie Sophie Scholl: The Last Days about the anti-Nazi martyr, defies this logic. The movie paints with strokes that are fine and meticulous. Color for color, detail for terrifying detail.
In this true story, director Marc Rothemund explores the last six days of Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch), a 21-year-old German member of the White Rose, a small group of idealistic and freethinking friends, who write, print and distribute leaflets denouncing the Nazi Party.
The action begins in 1943 on the eve of an operation in which Sophie and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), whos also in the group, plan to distribute leaflets furtively at the Munich University. The plan falls apart the next day after a janitor sees Sophie pushing a stack of these leaflets off a third floor atrium inside the university.
By highlighting how genuinely concerned a janitor is to see Sophie and Hans punished, Rothemund here makes an important, though often overlooked statement about the pervasiveness of Nazi devotion.
Sophie and Hans eventually get handed over to the Gestapo, and the audience is introduced to the man who proves to be Sophies nemesis, lead Gestapo investigator, Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held).
Once in Gestapo headquarters, Sophie and Hans are interrogated separately. After Mohrs initial grueling line of questions, to which Sophies responds with shaky but plausible excuses, he sends her to a cell in the bowels of the headquarters.
There, Sophie meets Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf), a Communist who also despises the Nazis. At first Sophie confides little in Else, turning instead into herself and focusing on prayer. (Sophies a devout Christian.)
At first, it seems as though God is answering her prayers: Hans corroborates her story, and her excuses gain currency. Mohr even tells her, Perhaps, after all, you will get home tonight.
However, after agents search Sophie and Hans apartment and find implicating evidence, tragedy becomes more imminent.
Mohr, an icy man with an agile mind, confronts Sophie with this new information and with her brothers signed confession.
The jig is up. Sophie, too, confesses. Yes I did it and Im proud, she says, claiming that only she and Hans were involved. Both want to protect Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter), another member of the White Rose who helped write the leaflets. The Gestapo catches him a day later.
Because Sophie now no longer attempts to hide her deed or her contempt for Nazism, her last interview with Mohr is the most compelling. The real Sophie emerges: Shes articulate and brass, and shes ahead of her time. Though Sophies less than half the age of Mohr, she ideologically spars with him, and has virtue in her corner.
Finally, she, Hans and Christoph are brought before a kangaroo court, which seeks blood, not justice. Nazi judge Roland Freisler (André Hennicke) berates the three, but Sophie and Hans do a good job standing up to the venomous man, who tries to steamroll their every attempt at explanation with Nazi rhetoric. The movies unrelenting tension reaches a new high at the end of this scene, as Freisler reads the punishment. Our worst fears are confirmed: all three are sentenced to death.
The Last Days takes an important look at a lesser-known story from the myriad tales of anguish caused by the Nazis. However, the nimble exchanges between Sophie and Mohr during her three days of interrogation make the movie stand out. And while other films about the White Rose exist, none had been privy to the unpublished transcripts of Sophies interrogations, which have recently been released from East German archives.
Jentsch, moreover, is superb. She neither emotes, nor holds back; instead she furnishes the perfect amount of emotion at the most opportune moments. Her ability to walk this fine line lends a heartbreaking authenticity to her portrayal.
Also, other small details, such as the sinister pitch of Freislers voice or Mohrs stone-cold eyes, or the day-to-day routine of those working in the Nazi bureaucracy, make this 63-year-old story alarmingly fresh.