On Feb. 18, 1943, Sophie Scholl, a 21-year-old philosophy student at Munich University, was caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets with her brother, Hans. Four days later, they'd been interrogated, tried, convicted, sentenced and executed for crimes against the state. That was justice, National Socialist-style, especially after the winter the German army had just endured in Stalingrad. Along with Hans and other members of an underground resistance group called the White Rose, Sophie was made an example of. But the last laugh - actually, more of a smile - was hers. Today, most Germans regard her as a saint, the Aryan Anne Frank, a Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake before leading the troops to victory.
Actually, she was guillotined, as we learn during the closing moments of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Marc Rothemund's blow-by-blow account of Scholl's martyrdom. Movies have been made about Scholl before: Michael Verhoeven's The White Rose, Percy Adlon's Five Last Days. What Rothemund's has going for it are the court transcripts and other documents that have been extracted from former East German archives in the last 15 years or so. We now know exactly what Scholl said as she first denied any involvement in the leafleting campaign, then claimed she and Hans were the only ones involved, then took full responsibility for her actions, insisting that, given the chance, she'd do it all over again.
That process, from denial to admittance to defiance, is beautifully rendered in a series of scenes between Julia Jentsch, who plays Scholl, and Alexander Held, who plays the Gestapo agent assigned to the case. The dialogue doesn't amount to much, by Hollywood standards, but the fact that it's the actual dialogue spoken during those encounters brings a grim terror to the proceedings, even when the proceedings take the shape of Nazi interrogations from our movie past. (You almost expect Held to say "Ve haf vays of making you talk.") And if you read between the lines, you can pick up all sorts of signals being sent from predator to prey, prey to predator. Overall, it's a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse.
As the mouse (or is she the cat?), Jentsch does a wonderful job of conveying both fear and courage, Scholl holding it together until she's given a private moment in the bathroom, after which she's got it together again, ready for Round Two. That would be her trial, presided over by a Nazi judge who all but foams at the mouth, not that his rabid sermonizing has much of an effect on Scholl. People who belong on pedestals don't always make the best movie subjects, but Jentsch gives us just enough glimpses at the frightened little girl behind the courageous young woman that we understand the extent of her sacrifice. History was on Scholl's side, it just didn't get there in time. So she had to settle for a triumph of the human spirit.