There are swimming pools that you just jump into without knowing if the water is really there or it's just an illusion and all there is below is hard concrete waiting for you to smash you to bits. This was the feeling I had when I finally picked up the energy and went to see SOPHIE SCHOLL: DIE LETZEN TAGE today, Tuesday April 25, at the Quad Cinema. Completely ignorant of the subject matter but irresistibly drawn to the image of a woman standing in defiance at a trial over a red background and a massive black swastika I wanted to know who she was, what her story was about, and how would I react to it.
Much like its distant cousin, Carl Theodor Dryer's stunning, classic silent film LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC, THE FINAL DAYS is also based not only on the transcripts from her trial and sentencing, but her interrogation, testaments from people who knew her -- documents that have been until recently released to the public's knowledge according to reports. And this is a groundbreaking action to take, especially when her story unveils itself and we see what she did at such an early age to sow the seeds of conscience -- a motif repeated several times over the course of the movie -- to the German people of the 1940s who had some knowledge that things were wrong but did not question them in fear.
Hence, the disclosure of these documents have brought a tremendous movie so sated with electricity that even when an interrogation scene goes on for almost an hour, it never seems to go up a hill but in fact is riveting, a tour de force of direction. Mark Rothemund's camera steals the show cutting back and forth from Sophie Scholl to her interrogator Robert Mohr (Julia Jentsch and Alexander Held, both fascinating foils). Mohr, unrelenting in his assault, is equally unprepared for when she strikes back word for word, unmoved (except for a quick cut to her hands which are wringing under the table, letting us know that after all, this is still a girl barely out of her teens). The suspense isn't about will she escape unscathed: her guilt is clear from the onset, we know that as much. But her verbal match with Mohr is so entrancing it starts to look like she may have actually escaped death. That is good direction (and mis-direction as well, but this is a compliment).
Going back to LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC, SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS bears some curious parallels to it. I found Sophie to, while as she herself quotes in a moment of quiet desperation, someone who barely knows God but nevertheless seeks his help, akin in spirit to Joan of Arc, in two crucial moments: one when she is reacting to the cries of torture (and wonders who that may be), and the second time, right before her execution. Both women have incredible convictions that their position is the correct ones -- and history has proved that indeed, they were right in acting with tolerance and altruism to men and their own conscience --, even at the moment when Sophie admits guilt, she is only reaffirming her own values to a gang government intent on smothering her eyes and words out.
Sadly enough, the Nazi regime did smother her light but not the far reaching power of her own convictions and here is the core, the meaning, of the movie: there are countless stories of human courage in the face of genocide and xenophobia -- from Jesus's passion to the victim of a hate crime. Sophie, in standing tall and telling her parents near the end that she would have done this again, transcends to a place much higher level and I feel that the inclusion of Robert Mohr at the end, with enigmatic, sad eyes, was a gesture that maybe he too felt the same way but, like Sophie said, he (like the German people) did not speak its mind.
Mohr, in fact, is the only other character other than Else Gebel and Hans Scholl to have significant screen time and have a very complex personality that is more suggested than revealed. Much like one of the monks who offers Joan of Arc the possibility to redeem herself -- to help them, and thus spare her life -- if she renounces her own conscience (and thus, the fruit of her faith), Mohr does this same exact thing to Sophie: he tries to, after seeing she will not budge and possibly taken aback by such resolve, to give her an equally easy exit. When she refuses, watch his eyes when she has to sign the papers which will condemn her. They're full of sadness, and maybe even a hint of admiration. After all, it is possible that no one has ever really shook his own belief system like she has, but a catharsis has taken place, and it shows in their last exchange once she heads to her own execution. I'm not sure that this actually happened, but I would like to think it did because despite the evil that men do to one another, there is a thing called faith, a thing called love, and a thing called hope. The images of Sophie's manifesto snowing over Germany and pictures of the real Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christophe Probst are proof that these are the people who matter -- not fake authorities who are monsters in uniform.
Being a movie about the members of the White Rose, I noticed something small throughout the screening of the movie, but to me a nice detail from an external source: two seats ahead of me, a gay couple, Germans both, silently watching the movie in an embrace, clearly in love. As I walked to the subway station I couldn't think about how Sophie's message extends itself to these two people whom she never even knew.
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