Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (review)

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The Nazis Are Coming!

Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film

If you frequent forum or blog discussions online with any regularity, then you’ve undoubtedly come across the concept of Godwin’s law, the idea that the longer any given debate goes on, the more likely it becomes that someone will invoke Nazism, at which point it’s all hit bottom and the Nazi shouter is deemed to have lost. It’s a cry against inappropriate invocation of Hitler, in order to save such a powerful analogy for when it’s really needed, and that’s usually a good thing.
But then you come to an example like the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, and if you’re, oh, a film critic known to be something of a lefty who often seems to be trying to get herself on watchlists of the terrifyingly named Total Information Awareness project… well, what do you do? You know that online readers are especially sensitive to unseemly cries of “Nazi!” and you don’t want anyone to call Godwin on you. Do you resist the urge to smack readers upside the head and say, Dear God you all must seen this film now before we skid even further down the slippery slope toward the horrific and all-too-true events depicted here? Do you just put on your best neutral face and talk about historicity and production values and based-on-newly-uncovered transcripts and hope that puts asses in seat, asses of folks who might just pick out the frightening parallels with what’s going on today?

I’m not taking any chances. Everyone must see this film, because while we’re not yet at the point at which college kids who distribute flyers criticizing a warmongering government are being executed for their political agitating, we cannot ever, ever get to that point.

This is what happened to Sophie Scholl and her brother, Hans, and a friend, Christoph Probst, in 1943. Scholl is something of an icon in Germany, apparently, as one of the very few people to call the Nazis on their bullshit to their faces, but her story is unknown to the American public, and it is a story some of the facts of which hit a little too close to home for us here: Scholl is accused of being “against the troops” for daring to suggest that they are dying in vain and should be brought home; she is “aiding the enemy” with her dissent. It’d be a bad joke if it weren’t true.

Bad enough to hear such things today from, say, the vice president of the United States looking to score some points with a cheap shot, but Scholl (the wonderful Julia Jentsch) heard it from the Gestapo interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held: Downfall), who held her life in his hands. The bulk of the film — directed by Marc Rothemund from a script by Fred Breinersdorfer — is occupied by the days-long grilling of Scholl after she is arrested for distributing a flying ranting against the insanity of the Third Reich in its administration of the war against the Allies. It’s chilling, really, how cold and calm Mohr is — does he really believe the twisted crap he’s espousing, the upshot of which is that up is down, black is white, and totalitarianism is freedom, or is he merely an obedient soldier parroting the party line? And Scholl… well, now that the details of how this 21-year-old college student held up under intense browbeating are public knowledge — the script is based upon previously unavailable transcripts of her interrogation — she’s sure to be even more revered, not just by the German people but by freedom lovers and opposers of tyrants everywhere.

And that’s the one thing that really sticks with you, after the icy dread of inevitability that hangs over the film: The idea that words are the weapons that tyrants fear most. The idea that the Third Reich would be so afraid of what one young woman had to say that they would kill her to shut her up. I’d love to think that such things couldn’t happen again. But there’s a furtive familiarity in the quiet scene that opens the film, as Scholl and her friends crank flyers out on a mimeograph machine in a secret location. It feels like a moment that inches ever closer again.

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