Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch, who astonishes at every turn), along with her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) and four friends, were the only members of an anti-Nazi organization called The White Rose. Over the few short months of the group's existence in 1941 and 1942, they printed and distributed six leaflets to German and Austrian citizens, decrying the Nazi regime and urging resistance. Caught and convicted of high treason, troop demoralization, and aiding the enemy, Sophie Scholl was executed in Munich on February 22, 1943. She was 21.
Though Scholl is is something of an icon in Germany, she's virtually unknown here in the US, which is why Marc Rothemund’s Oscar-nominated Sophie Scholl - The Final Days is such a revelation. Using sources including newly-available Nazi interrogation notes, Rothemund’s fictional film explores the last few days of Scholl’s life in searing detail, from the printing of the fateful pamphlet on the night of February 17 to her death only five days later. Aided by a pair of remarkable performances, he has created a film that does his central character the honor of not only living up to her legacy, but also making it relevant to modern audiences.
From the instant we meet her, Scholl comes across as an incredibly dynamic woman. Impishly singing along to a probably forbidden English-language record with a friend, she’s a barely-contained volcano of passion and eagerness, eyes gleaming with pleasure at the little moment of rebellion. Though she becomes serious upon leaving the friend and joining her co-conspirators to print their new leaflet, Scholl’s confidence and drive remain, and she immediately volunteers to accompany her brother on the dangerous mission of distributing the pamphlets at the local university.
Spotted in the act of distribution and arrested shortly thereafter, Scholl spends virtually every non-sleeping minute of the next three days being interrogated by one man, veteran Gestapo officer Robert Mohr (character actor Alexander Held, whose performance is in every way as good as Jentsch’s). Initially, she denies involvement with the opposition, offering girlish foolishness as the explanation for what she’s been caught doing - pushing a pile of leaflets off of a balcony - and insisting that she is only an “apolitical student.” Her eye contact never waving, Scholl stands up to her stern interrogator with something that stops just short of defiance. She never challenges him, but also never for a moment loses her dignity, and she performs with unimaginable poise, sometimes with a small, private smile tugging at her mouth.
She experiences a brief moment of despair when she learns of her brother’s confession - evidence has been found in his desk - and the arrest of White Rose member Christoph Probst; subsequently, Scholl returns to the interrogation room with her explosive passion and energy very close to the surface. Now that Mohr knows where she stands, she has been liberated: no longer will she listen to him spew the party line in silence. Instead, in a remarkable series of scenes, Scholl confronts her interrogator, questioning what he believes and challenging his commitment to the Nazi cause.
The interrogations turn the movie into essentially a two character play, but the performances are so extraordinary that the scenes are fraught with tension and thrilling in their audacity. Jentsch gives Scholl the passion of youth: she’s so sure of her beliefs that she is able to address this older, unimaginably powerful man as an equal, pouring her heart out to him as if she truly believes she has the will to convince him to join her cause. What’s most impressive about her performance, however, is that she allows the audience a moment of doubt: there’s a point at which she becomes almost too passionate, and we suddenly realize that she’s just as committed and inflexible as her adversary. Though she mocks him for his unquestioning adherence to the Nazi party line, she has precisely the same weakness with regard to her own beliefs.
Held, meanwhile, has an even more difficult job, making his menacing character show both fire and weakness while never relinquishing his position of power. And his performance is impeccable, taking Mohr from curiosity about Scholl’s obvious intelligence, to childlike rage when she denies the validity of the truths by which he lives; from incredulity at her selflessness, to utter horror when she tells him of Nazi atrocities. His work is so layered and convincing that he manages, for a short time, to make Mohr sympathetic. In Held’s hands, the interrogator becomes not a man who passionately believes in the Nazi cause, but rather one of morals who can’t afford to think otherwise. For the sake of his own sanity, he must believe in the regime - if he doesn’t, he will essentially cease to exist, because everything he has and everything he is hinge on the rightness of his cause. The look on Held’s his face when his character suddenly realizes that Scholl could be right is staggering; Mohr will never be the same.
Realizing early in her ordeal that her fate will be death, Scholl manages to embrace that fate without losing any of her passion. With almost impossible composure and nobility, she turns down a final offer from Mohr that will save her life but leave her necessarily “apolitical,” choosing instead to die for what she believes. Just 24 hours later, she walks to the guillotine with a bravery that impresses even her executioner and, along with her brother and Probst, is put to death.
Aside from its truly awesome central performances, what’s most remarkable about Sophie Scholl is its immediacy. By cleverly limiting the presence of obvious period touches to scenes in which they have the greatest impact, Rothemund makes his film and Scholl herself instantly accessible to modern audiences. Rather than watching a movie about an untouchable hero who lived over sixty years ago, we feel we’re watching a flesh and blood person make extraordinary decisions - and, most importantly, we're left with the conviction that some of us might be capable of doing the same.