Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (The Last Days, Germany 2005)

Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl with her brother Hans and other members of the White Rose group.

Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl with her brother Hans and other members of the White Rose group.

There are many interesting questions about this wonderful film. I’ve watched it recently as part of research into recent German films and how they might be used to teach about ‘political’ issues in film. I think it works for this purpose, but I was surprised by two things – the sheer power of Julia Jentsch in the title role and the very positive audience response evident on the net.

I was aware of the film during its (relatively limited) UK release and I think that I had bracketed it with Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004) which was a big hit in the UK and huge across Europe. I had no idea who Sophie Scholl was, but I did remember a film from 1990 which seemed to be related – Michael Verhoeven’s Nasty Girl (Das schreckliche Mädchen). In this earlier film, a young woman in contemporary Germany exposes the Nazi past of her local community, transforming herself from a ‘golden girl’ into a social pariah (I know I enjoyed the film, but I don’t remember the details).

Sophia Scholl was a young woman living in München early in 1943, arrested as part of the White Rose group of students who attempted to distribute leaflets urging an end to the war which they argued Germany couldn’t win. Sophie’s interrogation and her fortitude in sticking to her principles and attempting to protect her colleagues forms the main part of the story. The story is well known in Germany and I was intrigued to note that two earlier films, both starring Lena Stolze as Sophie, were released in Germany in 1982. One was directed by Michael Verhoeven, Die weisse Rose and the other by Percy Adlon, Fünf letzte Tage. This latter film sounds slightly different in focus, picking up on the relationship between Sophie and the woman who shares her cell during the interrogation. (This focus then reminds me of another recent German film, Vier Minuten 2007, but that’s another story.)

The Sophie Scholl story is neatly summarised on Wikipedia which lists an earlier 1970 film (which I haven’t been able to trace) and both a book and a play. The latest film benefits from material released from East German archives after 1990, so the authenticity of the dialogue now becomes an important factor for audiences.

The film isn’t a biopic as such since it deals with only a few days/weeks in Sophie’s life. However, it does refer to a specialised genre of films that celebrate young heroines in European culture, especially those whose dramas are set in 20th century wars (Anne Frank, Edith Clavell, Violette Szabo) or in the case of Rosa Luxemburg, the communist struggles. (Rosa was played by Barbara Sukowa in a Margerethe von Trotta film from 1986.)

Sophie Scholl is in many ways a conventional film. The narrative is necessarily linear, but the events unroll without any attempt at a ‘back story’ – so it takes the viewer a little time to learn exactly who these young people are. The colours are relatively muted, with only a few locations. I think I read that the director, Marc Rothemund, wanted to avoid too much Nazi regalia and he succeeds in keeping the proceeedings as municipal and fairly drab until the final courtroom scenes. The main part of the film is the sequence of interrogations of Sophie by Herr Mohr (played by a distinguished German actor, Alexander Held, who for me looked very much like Donald Pleasance). If the dialogue in any way reflects what she actually said, Sophie was indeed an intelligent and brave young woman. It may be a cliché, but this is a film in which “less is more”. The austerity of the mise en scène means that everything is thrown onto Julia Jentsch, who has few props with which to fashion a three dimensional image of Sophie. Jentsch succeeds in every way and it is her performance which gives the film its power. I hope that younger audiences will identify with Julia/Sophie who asserts her passionate belief in an idea about personal freedom. I should also confess that, as a humanist, I found the understated Lutheran Christian values of the character to be deeply moving.

I watched the film on a rented DVD distributed via ICA Projects – unfortunately, there was no accompanying material about the real Sophie Scholl which struck me as a missed opportunity.

One comment

  1. Nick Lacey

    I agree it’s an intensely moving film. It dramatises the strength of will required to stick to your principles whatever the circumstances. However, the individual needs the ‘collective mass’ to resist the tyrants and it was the failure of the German people to stand up to the Nazis that precipitated the War. The characterisation of Sophie’s interrogator, however, gives an understated insight into why many ordinary people collaborated. It is the ‘strength’ of fascism that it guides people who don’t want to think for themselves (a bit like religion). It also offers ‘certainty’ which is especially attractive in uncertain times.

    The judge, the representative of Nazi bile, was the double of Norman Tebbit – a terrific piece of casting.


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