We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Sophie Scholl, German heroine · 24 September 05

Dear Fanny,

One of the members of WWTTA who lives in Germany wrote in to tell us about a new film about Sophie Scholl. She gave me permission to put her postings on this blog.

Who is Sophie Scholl you may ask? Born 9 May 1921 and guillotined 22 February 1943, she was a member of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany. She was convicted of treason when she and a few friends openly advertised to as many people they could reach that Germany had lost WW2, and that the Nazi regime was a tyrannical organization which kept itself in power by backing up lies with brutal terror. Scholl’s group called themselves The White Rose. A film, Sophie Scholl—Die letzen Tage (directed by Marc Rothemund, screenplay Fred Breinersdorfer, and starring Julia Jentsch as Sophie) has just been made.

She wrote:

"I’ve finally managed to watch the latest German film on Sophie Scholl, the young student who was a leading member of White Rose Christian resistance group and who was guillotined with her brother and other activists for being caught distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets at Munich University. She has a similar iconic status here to Anna Frank, though she’s probably much less well known internationally. Perhaps this new DVD release will help to change that.

It’s a quietly intense, very well-acted film, what the Germans call a Kammerspiel, with few actors, mainly built around her interrogation by a police officer named Robert Mohr in one room, and using the actual protocolls for most of the dialogue.

Sophie Scholl is played by Germany’s best young dramatic newcomer, Julia Jentsch, but, if anything, I was even more impressed by Alexander Held’s Robert Mohr. He plays the man who will be ultimately responsable for Sophie’s going to trial as an average-seeming family man and minor bureaucrat, intent on
fulfilling what he genuinely believes to be his duty to the state he owes his own advancement to, despite a few moments of sympathy for Sophie.

I found his restrained, but sensitive performance, a much more frightening intimation of the cold realities of the Nazi regime, supported by many other such bureacrats ‘just doing the jobs’ they owed to Hitler, than the caricature of a foaming Nazi judge at the farce of a show trial at the end.

The latter was such a hammy performance that I’d dismissed it as the one real false note of the film until I did a bit of research and discovered that the person in question, Roland Freisler, one of the worst of the Nazi hanging judges and specially flown in for the trial, really did behave like an extremely bad, manic actor manqué when he officiated

Robert Mohr was never punished. He left the police force after the war, but remained a bureaucrat, working in the administration of a well-known German spa. Freisler was killed in an air-raid."

I responded:

"Thank you so much. I had never heard the name Sophie Scholl—though I have seen that photo you linked in before. While I was teaching Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front last fall, I read a biography about Remarque and thus about the horrific incident in the middle 1940s where the Nazis imprisoned Remarque’s sister and then beheaded her after a highly publicized humiliating trial. They said they beheaded her because she was his sister. That was the public rationale. It was openly to punish him for having written that book. And in the trial (as I recall) the judge was an open horror, sneering at her as Remarque’s sister. I agree that somehow it seems more probable and realistic (and common) for the terrible people who perform these deeds to do them prosaically, quietly, indifferently, but in fact it’s not that way always or perhaps even frequently.

On ‘German youth’ groups, in Patrick White’s The Village that Died for England (which if anyone hasn’t heard of or read I recommend strongly as a cultural history of the roots of the heritage industry as well as the harsh industrialization/capitalisation and first half of the 20th century in England), White includes a section in one chapter on German youth groups. It’s memorable. He explains that they appealed because they did rebel against not only adults, but the coercion of the state and society and modern life (anonymity, lives not lived in the naturalworld). I distinctly remember that he said the Nazis used such groups: they invented one of their own which
in outline resembled these but was a dictatorial militarist organization meant to displace these and also to be an arm of the Nazi movement."

She replied:

"I thought Sophie Scholl might be fairly unknown elsewhere, but as a strong instance of moral courage and principle when such were very rare and almost always fatal, she’s an important icon to a still relatively young German democracy and one young people can relate to at school.

I think what makes the Scholls particularly attractive as models is that they weren’t perfect, but humanly fallible and very much children of their time. As you probably saw, before becoming active in the resistance, Sophie had been a member of a Nazi youth group and her brother had been a soldier on the Russian front. They illustrate the temptations and dilemmas of the moment particularly closely, but acted on what they’d come to reject, opting to follow the very dangerous path of conscience instead to try and correct the common mistakes.

Though the film concentrates on the capture and interrogation and is otherwise rarely openly sentimental, I think it’s a moving touch during the titles at the end to show stills of the real Scholls doing the things kids of any age do, biking, swimming, laughing, flirting. They were normal kids doing unusual things at an abnormal time, part of the estimated 1% of the German population who were fully active in the resistance within Nazi Germany.

Most of them didn’t survive, but they are remembered, as the quietly impressive and very affecting Archive and Museum of Resistance in Berlin shows. I’d recommend a visit if you’re ever in town."

I hope this film comes to Cinemart, a local art-film theatre in my area—or the E-Street theatre in DC. Cinemart often screens excellent films. Two weeks ago Jim and I saw Saraband there, and Izzy and I have seen many fine films (e.g., Goodbye Lenin, The Mother, & Julie Bertucelli’s Since Otar Left). Last Sunday at the Cinemart I saw another intelligent political film, The Constant Gardener (directed by Fernando Mereilles, screenplay La Carré and Jeffrey Caine, and starring one of my favorite actors, Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, with Rachel Weisz as his courageous wife, Tessa), and am now waiting for a copy of LeCarré’s novel to arrive. When I’ve read it, I hope to write a blog comparing this effective film and excellent political novel.


Posted by: Ellen

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