November 08, 2006

Sophie Scholl, the White Rose and the nature of heroism

Of course, the terrible things I heard from the Nuremberg Trials, about the six million Jews and the people from other races who were killed, were facts that shocked me deeply. But I wasn't able to see the connection with my own past. I was satisfied that I wasn't personally to blame and that I hadn't known about those things. I wasn't aware of the extent. But one day I went past the memorial plaque which had been put up for Sophie Scholl in Franz Josef Strasse, and I saw that she was born the same year as me, and she was executed the same year I started working for Hitler. And at that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young, and that it would have been possible to find things out.- Traudl Junge, Secretary to Hitler in the closing frame of the film Downfall.

Turning to the Nazi regime, its easy to forget both its popular support and the fact that people could and did find out about it. Recently a film was made about one such group of people, or rather one character within that group- Sophie Scholl. Scholl was a member of a group of students called the White Rose who during 1943 postered and pamphleted through southern Germany against the Nazis- messages which got through even to the concentration camp at Dachau, arrested and later executed alongside her brother she became a symbol of the fact that some Germans had indeed known and had resisted however helplessly. For Traudl Junge- she served even in a new millenium as a mark of how far Junge and most of the German nation had failed.

The story of Scholl and her friends is one of the most interesting therefore around for a film maker to tell- the central question being what distinguished them? What made these Germans so conscious of the ills of the Third Reich that they resisted and resisted to the point of death? Consequently its no surprise to find that Scholl has become the subject of a recent film, Sophie Scholl Die Letzen Tage. The film makers here simplify the story by concentrating on the lonely figure of Scholl herself but they use the actual SS files on her interrogation in order to script much of the central part of the film. Shining a spotlight on Scholl they pose her as an alternative to Junge, the central character of the film Downfall about Hitler's fall, and ask what made her special.

Consequently much of the film focuses intimately on Scholl herself, her reactions, her feelings, and her death. Thankfully in Julia Jentsch they found an actress capable of carrying the role. Scholl as here painted is an ordinary young woman- we first see her playing discs with a friend, we see her thinking about her fiance on the Russian front, we see her with her brother. But one thing comes out of the film and that is her faith. Scholl's christianity is referred to again and again, particularly in the scenes in which she discovers she will die and retreats to her cell to confess her feelings to her cell mate. Scholl is offered a way out which she refuses upon grounds of faith- the position of the film is that Scholl's faith in many ways is the animating principle of her life, without it this would be an ordinary girl, with it she becomes corageous enough to take on the Third Reich.

Curiously this leaves the film rather flat, Scholl's character is almost so internally strong that she gives no sign of growth and her feelings are merely there to be combatted and not to sway her. The most visible example of this is the interrogation scene where proceeding from denial to admitting what has happened, she abandons a posture of defence to come out with an attack in which the film shows her as being partially successful. Because the heroine is so heroic, rejecting temptation at every moment, the film can't show us what temptation is. Scholl in this sense becomes almost inhuman in the way that she strides purposefully to her death- she knows the end and she wills the end. In many ways this film is not a film in the conventional sense- but a freeze frame of defiance.

Therefore this film aims to be disappointing, because it aims to show us a resistance that could not be overcome and cannot be explained by rational methods. The actions of the White Rose echo through history and yet were personally full of folly- there was no question that eventually they would be caught and that mere pamphleteering was a gesture not a strategy to bring down the Reich- once caught there was no question that open defiance would end in death- and yet they continued down that path. By staying faithful to that problem, the film fails to satisfy as a film but it does portray the emmense psychological certainty that religious belief (or any belief for that matter) can give someone- even in the depths of a Nazi jail.


Jeff Burton said...

Perhaps you would like Die Weisse Rose ('82). Though Sophie Scholl figured prominently in that movie, it was about her comrades as well. It's been years since I've seen it, but I remember it being a good film.

Gracchi said...

Thanks I'll check it out.