While imperfect—not in the least because of an annoying, inapt and cheesy-sounding musical score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek that makes the film sound like a bad TV drama—Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) is still a truly remarkable film. It’s remarkable because the centerpiece scenes of Sophie’s (Julia Jentsch, Downfall) interrogation and trial by the Nazis are taken directly from recently released transcripts of the events themselves. (It’s especially chilling to hear Sophie’s last words to the court, since they’re so close to Chaplin’s words in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which also indicts a corrupt system, albeit in very different ways.) That sort of realism doesn’t necessarily translate into convincing drama, but here it does—thanks to director Marc Rothemund and the incisive performances of Jentsch and Alexander Held (who plays her chief interrogator). Jentsch is particularly fine. Her ability to make us believe Sophie’s somewhat naive youthful idealism is what makes the effortless eloquence of her words believable.
The film charts the last days of this 21-year-old woman’s life, when she and her brother (Fabian Hinrichs)—members of the anti-Nazi student organization, the White Rose—were arrested, interrogated, “tried” and executed by the Nazi government for high treason. The treason in question involved writing and distributing leaflets opposing Hitler and the war. In many ways, it’s the story of an arrest that should not have happened, since it’s so completely grounded in a foolhardy act that needn’t have taken place. The idea of distributing the leaflets at the university—an idea opposed by most of the members of the group—was a last-minute decision born out of a lack of envelopes (due to the paper shortage) to mail them all. But it’s also so clearly a folly of idealism and youth that it’s impossible not to admire the bravery behind it.
Another aspect of the film that weighs very much in its favor is its refusal to descend into melodrama and melodramatic breast-beating. The characters aren’t entirely, unbelievably stoic, but neither are they made to play to our sympathies, which in turn makes them all the more sympathetic. That the film has a certain allegorical value—as an extreme example of where the silencing of criticism of a government can lead—is a separate issue, but one that is well worth considering at any point in history. The choice of showing this film on July 4 was hardly coincidental.