Friday, June 20, 2008

When worldviews collide

If you go to Perlach Cemetery in Munich, Germany you'll find the grave of Sophie Scholl (born 9 May 1921 - died 22 February 1943). She's buried next to her brother Hans Scholl and friend Christoph Probst. All three were executed for their involvement in the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance. If you're not familiar with the story of Sophie and the White Rose, the Shoah Education Project has a brief bio on her and her brother. Read it here. I want to focus on the superb dramatization of Scholl's last days by director Marc Rothemund and writer Fred Breinersdorfer in their 2005 film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage). After watching it two or three times its become one of my favorite movies and favorite performances by a female lead -- German actress Julia Jentsch playing Sophie. This is a film with universal appeal, but as a Christian it's especially powerful.

The backbone of the film is a series of interrogations of Scholl by Investigator Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held) in his darkly-panelled office at Gestapo headquarters. Initially, Scholl attempts to cover up the resistance activities that have gotten her arrested, and she professes to having apolitical views. The savvy interrogator isn't buying it. "Do you think you can hide your true convictions from us?" Mohr asks. As it turns out, she can't, and these interviews morph into a well-written, marvelously-acted confrontation between two opposing worldviews -- the Nazi ideology of the Gestapo-man and the Christian convictions of the student.

By this scene -- the final interrogation -- a subtle shift has occurred. One senses that Mohr is becoming more and more unnerved by Sophie. He can't quite figure her out. "You're so gifted, why don't you think and feel like us?" he asks. In previous scenes Mohr has been the one in complete control -- of the situation and his emotions -- but here we begin to detect a flicker of doubt as Scholl presses him on the nature of the regime he serves. I like the simplicity of the scenes between Jentsch and Held characterized as they are by a conventional shot/countershot rhythm and the absence of music or background noise. Director Rothemund steps back and allows the writing and acting to supply the dramatic tension. Watch as the interrogator becomes the interrogated.

In contrast to Investigator Mohr, Judge Roland Freisler (André Hennicke) is a raving madman. Handpicked by Hitler to preside over the People's Court, he was the personification of justice being turned on her head. In this scene he's presiding over the sham trial of Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst. Lest you think Hennicke's performance is over the top, the trial scenes in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days are based on transcripts and archival footage of Freisler in action. The scene ends with the three sentenced to death and Hans Scholl (Fabian Hinrichs) pointing his finger at Freisler in the manner of an Old Testament prophet and pronouncing woe. "You may hang us today. But you'll be hanged tomorrow!" His prophecy came essentially true on 3 February 1945 when Freisler was killed by a direct hit on his courtroom during an American bombing raid. In a nice bit of irony, the raid was led by a Jewish-American lawyer from Brooklyn, USAF Lt. Col. Robert Rosenthal.

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