As much a passion play as a historical drama, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days focuses on the holy week of Febru-ary 17-22, 1943, when the young heroine of the title distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Munich and was arrested, interrogated, tried and put to death. Michael Verhoeven's 1982 feature The White Rose, starring Lena Stolze, took a wide-angle view of this story, narrating the founding, growth and activities of Scholl's resistance group and ending with her arrest. Percy Adlon's Five Last Days, released the same year and also starring Stolze, approached the story more obliquely, looking at Scholl through the eyes of her cellmate Else Gebel. The new Sophie Scholl, written by Fred Breinersdorfer and directed by Marc Rothemund, stands apart from these earlier films by being strongly text based--its sacred writ is the transcript of Scholl's long, multi-part interrogation by the Gestapo, a document first made accessible in 1990--but also in its explicit religious preoccupations. In interviews, Rothemund has described himself as an atheist; but in his direction, he has made Scholl a lamb of God, sacrificing herself to clear other Germans of the imputation of collective sin.
This redemptive theme vies uneasily with the film's documentary impulse. On the one hand, Sophie Scholl was shot on historic locations or faithful re-creations, and it makes extensive use (perhaps even too extensive) of its archival sources. On the other hand, a pianist is somehow always positioned just off-camera to provide some sensitive noodling, and the sun shines on cue whenever Sophie lifts her face.
The job of resolving this internal conflict falls to the lead actress, Julia Jentsch. Just as Scholl had somehow to keep her wits about her during her ordeal--spinning tales to the Gestapo, shielding her friends, turning her show trial into an occasion for moral testimony--so must Jentsch keep up a subtle, restrained performance while the movie Nazis around her are screaming themselves red in the face. She succeeds beyond all expectation.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days has just opened in New York, at Film Forum, and will be playing around the country as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.