The apprehension, interrogation, trial and execution of one of the heroines of the anti-Nazi resistance movement in 1940s Germany is given solid docu-drama treatment by Marc Rothemund in this Oscar-nominated film. Along with her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), like her a university student in Munich, Sophie (Julia Jentsch) is a member of The White Rose, a group that distributes prohibited criticism of the regime and its policies through leaflets secretly sent through the mails. The script first introduces us to the pair as they and their fellow resisters run off their latest missive, mailing out as many as they can before deciding to take the dangerous path of placing the remainder around the university, where they can be picked up by passersby. The next morning, in a sequence that builds considerable tension, Sophie and Hans rush through the classroom building placing piles of the papers in the empty hallways, and they seem to be at point of escape when they’re accosted by a janitor and taken in for questioning.
The following segment of the picture, which makes up the bulk of the running-time, focuses on Sophie’s interrogation by Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), a morose-looking local Gestapo agent who’s generally soft-spoken but capable of exploding when angered, and genuinely incredulous that a good German could protest against the government and its conduct of the war at the very moment when the army at Stalingrad is at point of surrender (the time is February, 1943). He’s initially persuaded by Sophie’s plausible explanations and is at point of releasing her when new information comes to light that dooms her and her brother. Further questioning follows, during which Mohr, alternately bullying and vaguely considerate, tries to get her to reveal other members of their group. These interrogation scenes–vaguely menacing but mostly calm–at times trail off into high-minded moral disquisitions that sound a bit more like a philosophical debate than a police procedure, but they maintain real intensity by reason of the finely controlled performances by Jentsch and Held and the cool intensity of Martin Langer’s lensing and Rothemund’s direction. They’re intercut with more quiet, ruminative moments in which Sophie develops a tentative friendship with Else (Johanna Gastdorf), a Communist who’s her cell-mate.
The final section of “Sophie Scholl” is an account of the hearing in the so-called Peoples’ Tribunal in which Sophie and Hans–along with a third member of their group, a young father–are berated by a fanatical judge and sentenced to death. This was in every respect a kangaroo court, of course, and perhaps the presiding judge was actually the Nazi martinet portrayed here. But the jurist–dressed in bright red robes that give him an almost demonic appearance–is played so extravagantly by Andre Hennicke that he breaks the mood of somber, methodical reportage the film has until then so meticulously built. And though the prophecies that Hans and Sophie hurl back at him–that he’ll soon be in the dock himself–may also be accurate, that doesn’t keep them from having a melodramatic feel–the posthumous triumph, as it were, of the innocents. The picture concludes with the last meeting Sophie is allowed with her distraught but supportive parents, her last moments with Else, her brother and their condemned colleague, and their execution by guillotine.
This is a relatively small-scaled film, mostly shot in confined spaces to suggest the closed, claustrophobic nature of life under Nazi rule. The period detail is good, giving a sense of authenticity to the piece, and the direction, photography and editing work together to create an appropriately forbidding atmosphere. But what makes the film work as well as it does are the performances, especially by Jentsch and Held. She might not be the spitting image of the actual Sophie, who in the stills over the final credits looks considerably more formidable than the rather mousy figure depicted here, but she conveys the character’s highly principled sense and verbal dexterity very well. (At times her cat-and-mouse sessions with Mohr may recall those between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell in “A Man for All Seasons.”) Held is equally fine, the very image of a little man who seems to recognize somehow the enormity of what he’s doing but hasn’t the strength of character to accept his complicity in an evil system. With the exception of Hennicke, the rest of the cast gives sound, respectable turns, though the actor who does a sort of mini-Hitler impression as Mohr’s assistant (whom the interrogator summons into his office a bit too frequently–it becomes almost comedic) comes across as a bit much.
It’s difficult to say exactly how accurate “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” is: Fred Breinersdorfer’s script is based on documentary files and records and witness testimony, but obviously a degree of speculation and imagination must also be involved. But the film is clearly a docu-drama of seriousness and integrity, and in the story of Sophie and her compatriots it presents an always-topical tale of courageous resistance in the face of governmental repression–a lesson that isn’t, of course, applicable only to Nazi Germany.