A True Patriot

Sophie Scholl: an outstanding person, but only a decent movie

You know what I like about Nazis? Nothing! They're horrible, and to even suggest that there's anything good to say about them is to cast your moral character into doubt.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Nazis are paragons of wrongdoing, and perhaps could even serve as a standard referent or metaphor for evil itself. Like, if someone was a bad person, I might say "stop being such a Nazi." And then that person would feel dissed and would need to repent of his or her evil ways.

I mention this to provide historical context to the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, because it occurs in a historical period and in a land where the National Socialist party, commonly called "the Nazis," were in power.

The titular Sophie Scholl was an actual young woman who bravely helped to publish a newspaper that dared to question some of the misstatements of the Nazi regime. Like, they were running a war at the time, and the war wasn't going as well as they would have liked the public to believe. So, Fraulein Scholl and her compatriots, who called themselves The White Rose, mentioned in their newsletter that the war was perhaps something of a fiasco and a quagmire.

While this was true, it was also something the Nazis didn't want presented to the public, so they questioned the patriotism of those who would tell the truth about their war, and claimed that those who did so were demoralizing the troops and aiding the enemy. Then they arrested the truth-tellers and sent them to jail or killed them. Just so you know how much worse things could be.

The true story of Sophie Scholl is one of those historical moments that needs to and should be told. For one thing, Scholl was, in fact, a patriot: She wanted the best for her country and believed that a regime which would engage in fruitless and wasteful warfare was not in her country's best interest. Because sometimes honesty is actually patriotic.

Also, it seems important to note that even in a time of extreme political repression, there were Germans of good faith and conscience who believed that speaking out against the evils of their government was more important than protecting their lives. Since Germans get a bad rap for the Holocaust, it's nice to note that at least some of them were opposed to evil and badness and the murder of millions of innocents.

So on the level of truth, and the consequences one might endure for telling the truth, Sophie Scholl could well be considered an important film. The question for the film reviewer, though, is whether it's a good film. Not morally: Of course, if you say mean things about Nazis, you must be good, and if the "you" in question is a film, the moral judgment still applies, no doubt.

But Triumph of the Will is an excellent film, and it has nothing but nice things to say about Nazis. This is one of those strange but true facts that should be, but isn't, in the latest Ripley's Believe It or Have Your Ethical Nature Questioned.

So when I note that Sophie Scholl was an excellent person, but Sophie Scholl is only a decent movie, well, that's how it runs sometimes. Most of Sophie Scholl does work well: The acting, especially by lead Julia Jentsch and Gerald Alexander Held, who plays her inquisitor, is ruthlessly good. Held brings a complexity to the role of a Nazi police officer that belies the simplicity of the "evil Nazi" stereotype without in any way limiting the moral culpability of someone in his position.

The cinematography, too, is generally good, making excellent use of enormous, neoclassical interiors and carefully balancing a limited palette of grays and soft reds. The attention to color is reminiscent of the later work of Sven Nykvist, in that a wide array of tones are drawn from a narrow slice of the visual spectrum, and to strong effect.

But Sophie Scholl has two small problems that kneecap its potential to be a great film: First, there is extremely loud, intrusive and anachronistic music in the initial sequences. Director Marc Rothemund has in every other respect very carefully re-created the look and feel of 1940s Germany, so to put in tremendously contemporary music seems an odd choice. It's even odder that it's mixed up so high, and that it's the kind of obvious and manipulative music you hear during chase sequences in American action movies.

The second problem is that Sophie Scholl covers only the last few days of Scholl's life. This limit on the scope translates into an emphasis on minutia that makes the film drag a bit, so it winds up being a half-hour longer than its material warrants. But that half-hour could easily have been filled with some back story on what brought Scholl to become a member of The White Rose, or the story of her love for a soldier, or anything to establish her character. Instead of showing that, it's all done in expository dialogue, which, in spite of Jentsch's very strong performance, isn't quite as effective. So on the whole, Sophie Scholl gets a B+, which is a demerit only in that it starts with A+ material.

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