Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Kino Lorber, NR)

In these polarizing times it’s worth remembering the proverb that people are like the fingers of a hand: they are not all alike. That attitude is necessary in order to appreciate Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which takes as its subject the arrest and trial of several members of The White Rose, a student anti-Nazi group that for obvious reasons had to operate in secret. The film based on historical events and serves as a reminder that while there were certainly a lot of absolutely terrible people in Nazi Germany, there were also some risking their lives to fight for good.

In 1943, Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) are students at Ludwig Maximilian  University of Munich and members of The White Rose. Their resistance work consists primarily of printing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets by mail and in person around the city. One day a janitor spots Sophie in an uncharacteristically indiscrete gesture (pushing a stack of leaflets over a balcony at the university), and she and Hans are arrested and taken to Stadelheim Prison, where she shares a cell with a communist sympathizer, Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf). In keeping with the theme that you shouldn’t judge people by labels, Else is perhaps the kindest and most likeable character in the entire film.

Interrogated separately, both Sophie and Hans claim complete responsibility for the leaflets, with Sophie saying, in the most deadpan manner possible, that she did it as a joke. One of their friends, Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter), is also arrested, and the three of them are given “trials” for treason and related charges (including demoralizing the troops and aiding the enemy) under conditions more characteristic of a kangaroo court.

Roland Freisler (André Hennicke), President of the People’s Court (a Nazi court that specialized in political offenses), doesn’t bother to hide his contempt for the defendants. It’s a showy performance by Hennicke, demonstrating that he’s not so much following orders as enjoying the state-sanctioned right to be the world’s biggest bully. Notably he’s deaf to the pleas of Probst, father of three young children, who pleads for his life so he can take care of them (so much for supposed the Nazi concern for supporting families). That episode aside, the defendants understand the game that is being played and take the opportunity to state their beliefs rather than try to defend themselves in any orthodox manner. They make good points, including that German defeat in the war is all but inevitable (which really hurts because it’s becoming obvious to many)—but of course the trial outcomes were determined before they even began.   

Fred Breinersdorfer’s screenplay for Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is true to its title, focusing on Scholl during her last few days on earth rather than trying to cover her entire life, as more conventional biopics often do. For this reason, it’s mainly a character study of a young woman whose steadfastness and determination belie her 21 years. One example: after being found guilty of treason, she calmly faces Freisler and tells him “where we stand today, you will stand soon.”* Jentsch (who I will forever think of as Barbara Sukowa’s assistant in Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt) delivers a powerfully understated performance appropriate to her character’s conviction that truth is stronger than even the most horrenduously unjust regime.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days was nominated for the 2005 Foreign Language Oscar (Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi won) and won a number of other awards, including Silver Bears for Rothemund and Jentsch at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh

*Not exactly, as it turns out: rather than being tried for his judicial crimes after the war, Freisler was killed by an Allied bomb on Feb. 3, 1945. But there’s a Hollywood twist: Freisler was conducting a court session on the day of the bombing raid and was crushed to death by the literal collapse of the People’s Court building.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, and interviews with family members and associates of Scholl.

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