Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sophie Scholl

We watched a rented version of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days last night. It's the story of the young woman who, as one of the small group of German students who resisted the Nazi regime, was executed in 1943 for the crime of distributing pamphlets condemning Hitler and denouncing his war as a lost cause. As Sophie's brother, Hans, said during their kangaroo court trial, even in 1943 you had only to look at a map to understand that the German military stood no chance against the combined forces of Russia, Britain and the United States. Had the simple realism of the young people of the White Rose prevailed, how much futile bloodshed would have been avoided.

As its title suggests, the film concentrates on Sophie's story--from her "criminal" act, to her arrest, her interrogation, the trial, and her execution by guillotine. It is not one that I'd recommend to those who prefer to spare themselves this kind of agony. It is, though, a powerful, compelling, and utterly convincing evocation of a period when tyrannical ideology trumped even the most basic human rights, when the surveillance of state police made resistance a risk of imminent arrest and an almost certain death sentence, and terror was the tool used by the state to ensure compliance with its arbitrary laws. It is a cautionary tale, reminding us of what can happen when average citizens are intimidated into surrendering their conscience.

Most remarkable about the film is its reliance on simple head shots and dialogue over action scenes. With the exception of the early scenes that briefly dramatize the fraught circumstances of the creation and distribution of the White Rose pamphlets and the electrifying trial, the action is reduced to the exchange between Sophie and her interrogator, Robert Mohr. Both actors are superb. In the beginning, Sophie simply lies, and lies with magnificent aplomb. At one point, she has virtually succeeded in convincing Mohr, and seems about to elude his clutches. But the tide turns against her, further resistance becomes futile, and her new tactic is to protect others, her friends, from sharing her fate. It's a battle between state power and personal conscience, reduced to this intense exchange between two individuals. There's a desk, a lamp, occasional incursions by attendant characters, but essentially the two actors must rely on nothing mire than facial expression and subtle body language.

You have to love Sophie. You are astounded by her grit, her determination, the inner moral compass that guides her through moments of weakness, pain, and doubt. You are outraged by the treatment she is subject to, and by the mockery of a trial at which--along with her brother and one associate--she is condemned. Even though you know throughout that it is coming, you are appalled by the injustice of her death. The events follow on each other in absolutely gripping sequence, such that it's impossible to take your eyes from even the small screen of the television monitor. You are confronted with your own core values, and with the question as to whether, in these circumstances, you would share Sophie's courage. You wonder whether you, too, would succumb to the tyranny and terror of the regime. And you find, in Sophie, the possible redemption of humanity, the essential nobility of the human spirit at its best.

Later this morning, I go to visit the studio of my friend Mark Strickland, one of a relatively small number of artists (I think of others like Leon Golub and Nancy Spero) who take it to be their responsibility, as artists, to use their skills to address matters of social conscience. Mark's recent series on the children at the Dachau concentration camp, another Nazi monstrosity, is a notable example. It's not something I expect of every artist, but I respect those who choose this difficult, off-mainstream path. They remind me that Sophie Scholl surrendered her young life for a cause greater than herself--an act of heroism that vastly transcends today's easy misuse of that word.


mandt said...

I confess to be somewhat stunned by this post. It brought up such moving memories of a dear friend of my youth---Nicola Geiger. Nicola, grew up and went to school with Wille Brandt and was fully conversant with the White Rose. Her father was Buddhist and her family destroyed by the Nazis. She was imprisoned, tortured and widowed when the family summer home in Dresden was fire bombed. She died, not too long ago a sojourner walking in the light of the Dharma. I admit to an ache of grief when I think of her. What an incredible woman.

Buddha Eye said...

It is hard to believe that people could be that evil during that time and torture some innocent people. It is a good movie though.

Gabe said...

I am writing a screenplay about nicola and would very much be interested in interviewing you. Email is GabeMills at gmail. I hope this reaches you.

Tibetan jewelry said...

I must watch this movie. I'm curious about the ending of the story.