Sophie Scholl’s story is an interesting one. This film is a well polished biography of the key events in her life. And although some interesting meaning sneaks into it, Sophie Scholl: The Last Days does nothing to stand out from the crowd.
The Real Sophie
Sophie Scholl: The Last Days is a drama, not a documentary. It is, however, based on transcripts, so historical accuracy is an important component in making the film. Whether historical accuracy makes for good drama can be debated; this film is both good and bad.
(Spoiler warning for this paragraph). In 1943, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at their college. They were arrested, interrogated, and eventually executed. The film follows Sophie and Hans from the flyers to the guillotine, a period of about a week.
The film comes from Germany and was one of the five Academy Award nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture.
Blending in with the Crowd
Sophie Scholl joins a long undistinguished list of Foreign Film nominees that are well polished, Hollywoodish, and unchallenging. That’s not to dis Sophie Scholl. After all, it’s well polished and it has a very interesting subject. But it has an abundance of orchestral, mood-setting music, a beautiful protagonist, an overly simple message, and villains who, in spite of Sophie’s own fate, get their comeuppance at the end. Far from making Sophie stand out, these qualities make it blend in with the crowd.
Probably the worst aspect to Sophie Scholl — the thing that actually counts against it — is its overly simplistic moral statement: Freedom of expression is good, suppression of that freedom is bad.
Counterbalancing that simplicity is a refreshing complexity in its villains. Because the film is made by Germans, Sophie Scholl’s depiction of Nazis is more nuanced than most movies’. They are still evil, but, as in Downfall, they are recognizably human. Director Marc Rothemund repeatedly shows the glances of the bureaucrats, and they change with Sophie’s fate. At first, the typists and interrogators are sympathetic and paternal. But as the accusations start to stick, expressions become more distant and haughty.
What Sophie Scholl is really good at — and I’m not entirely convinced that it does so deliberately — is to portray the slippery slope that leads to totalitarianism. The Nazis resort to force when necessary, but they spend a long time trying to win Sophie over with words. They remind her that her own education and that of her brother are provided by the blood of fallen Nazi soldiers. They suggest that she must be very ungrateful to speak against Nazism when — as we speak — her countrymen are dying on the front lines. What Sophie and Hans have done (remember, they distributed flyers at a college) is to demoralize the troops and give comfort to the enemy.
I appreciated Sophie Scholl more for verbalizing the arguments for a totalitarian state than for making the obvious arguments against it. If we remember these words coming from Nazi mouths, perhaps that will take away their effectiveness when American politicians try to smear their opponents with them.
Just Another Docudrama
But as I said, putting politically popular words into Nazi mouths doesn’t seem to have been the primary focus of Sophie Sholl, which is more of a docudrama and biography. As biography, it is well polished, neat, and pat, and therefore it’s just like all the rest. It fails to really be a great foreign film.
Granted, it’s good light-political entertainment, and it’s not a bad movie. But glimpsing the accidental importance under its surface makes it seem like less of an achievement.