Len Phillips reviews the German film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.
Sophie Scholl, with her older brother, had been part of an anti-Nazi protest in the middle of Germany in the middle of World War II. In 1943, they were arrested for distributing leaflets denouncing Hitler and were executed five days later. Their ultra-heroic deeds have been immortalised in many ways, the latest being a film in German, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.
As I always tell my children, when a film is based on a true story, then you know the story is in important ways utterly false. There is no hard and fast rule where fact and fiction divide in such fables, but it is not unusual for it to convey some message or other that is contemporary rather than belonging to the times it depicts.
Start with something relatively trivial. We are presented with a very brave Sophie (the role for which Julia Jentsch won the Best Actress at the 2005 Lola Awards and the Berlin Film Festival) facing up to her interrogator in a way that would hardly be credible if it happened in a confrontation over jaywalking at a police station in Stockholm.
That the real Sophie went to court with a broken leg suggests something rather more sinister took place than the relatively genteel inquisition shown on film. But the directors wanted a Sophie brave at every turn, and they wanted a reasoned dialogue, so that is what we have.
What I also looked for in the film was evidence that the filmmakers understood the Christian message that lay behind the story and were willing to portray it. Modern times being what they are, it was always open to the writers/producers/directors to leave out such an important theme. To be sure, it was downplayed, and was only depicted at the end. Yet it was there.
There was, to take an important example, the moment when the Nazi interrogator, enraged by Sophie’s beliefs, shouts at her that there is no God. That Christian belief, which was the basis for the protest, is nevertheless referred to only obliquely in the film.
That Christian belief was the absolute foundation for their protest is made clear in this passage from one of the leaflets distributed by Sophie and her co-conspirators – something which is never alluded to on screen:
“Every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilisation, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour; he must … forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late.”
We live at a time when the spirit of religious faith is seen as an obstacle to goodness rather than its frequent source. Both the Nazi and Communist regimes, explicitly atheist, are seldom held to account for the secular horrors they brought onto the populations they controlled.
It was therefore gratifying that the picture did point, however vaguely, towards the source of the beliefs that had led to such extraordinary measures of courage at such dark times. That it would do more is not to be expected in films made today.
All this is to speak of the actions of actual people during one of the most tragic periods of history. Yet we are also speaking of a film that was produced in 2005 – itself a particular moment in history – by people who chose to film this story with their own didactic purpose.
The heroine of this film is depicted as a peace protestor who takes on the established authorities in the midst of a war. The brochure of the film describes it as a story about a “young co-ed turned fearless activist”.
This anachronistic language makes clear how the film is seen by those who made it and by many of those who view it.
Perhaps I read too much into it when I see the film as an attempt to garner the moral credit that belongs to those who were brave beyond compare, and unique in their time, precisely because of the dangers involved. We have a handful of young people in the midst of one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes ever known, risking their lives unto death to protest against the evils of the war which that regime had caused.
In contrast, in the West today, we find people, dwelling in societies where they are inheritors of personal freedoms with no historical precedent, protesting against the conduct of a war by those self-same societies whose aim is to bring similar freedoms to others in places where such freedoms have never been known.
And this war is being fought, not because of the good-hearted charity of those in the West who are waging this fight, but because it is judged that there will be no defending the freedoms we now have if we do not take this war to our enemies.
Our protestors today are not people fighting in the spirit of Sophie Scholl. They are people opposed to everything she stood for. That they look at such a film and see themselves reflected back from the screen is a form of moral vanity almost too bizarre to credit.
– Film reviewed for News Weekly by Len Phillips.