Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sophie Scholl -- courage and sacrifice

What would you do if your country was in a war you thought was wrong and no one was doing anything about it? That is the question that faced Sophie Scholl in Nazi Germany in 1942. She joined the White Rose, a student-led pacifist movement aimed at spreading the truth.

Based on a true story derived from German transcripts (the real Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst are shown below respectively left to right), Julia Jentsch stars as Sophie. Although unknown in America, she won numerous international awards for this role. The movie itself was nominated for the 2005 Oscar for best foreign movie, but lost to Tsotsi.

After planting leaflets calling for Germans to turn away from Hitler, Hans and Sophie were arrested. Apparently a minor issue, this was viewed as high treason. The crux of the movie is the interrogation of Sophie by Herr Mohr of the gestapo. Unlike stereotypes in other WW2 movies, this interrogator is portrayed as a thoughtful, non-violent German who is sold on national socialism. This is a prolonged (through multiple scenes) two-way interaction that stays with the characters. Initially, Sophie lies about her involvement and appears quiet, though worried.
Once she sees her brother's signed confession, she changes her approach and confesses herself. She will not let her brother take the fall on his own. From here, her spine visibly stiffens and she starts to get into more heated discussions with Mohr. Although she signs her own confession, he wants her to name names. As he tries to get this information from her, she starts to display her Christian faith and worldview. This in turn, causes Mohr to get angry, even hostile. The truth will do this.

In the second half of the movie, the two Scholls are brought to trial, a show trial for the "people" to make their verdict. The director shows us a view of the scales of justice, the statue atop the court building, before going into these scenes. But what we see is a kangaroo court. Indeed, the judge who presides over this mockery of a court is even angrier than Mohr. He is full of Nazi propaganda and will not listen to anything that is contrary, though it might be true.

Scholl juxtaposes a young woman who stands for the truth, based on a firm foundation of faith, with two men who have no solid grounding. Both Mohr and Judge Freisler have a worldview of legalism, where the law is defined by the Nazis in power. Although Mohr is slightly sympathetic towards Sophie Scholl, having a son her age in the army, the judge is a rampant Nazi. He has no sympathy or empathy. To him, if you are not 100% in favor of total war, meaning the Aryan Germans will win at any cost, you are unworthy, and can be discarded. No doubt, this is what happened in Germany.

Toward the end, there is an overpowering scene where Sophie gets to see her parents. This still does not fail to bring tears to my eyes, though I have seen it three times. Though this scene is short, like the entire movie it is filled with a whole gamut of emotions: pride, grief, frustration, hope to name a few. The one mention of Jesus appears here and brings hope of eternal life and future reunion.
Throughout Sophie Scholl the director uses color and light for dramatic effect. Sophie wears a red sweater during the whole movie. While she is being interrogated by him, Mohr wears a red bow-tie. (At the very end, when he observes her after her meeting with her parents, he wears a black bow-tie.) The judge wears bright red robes and hat (looking like a Catholic cardinal). And, of course, the Nazi flags had a red background to highlight the black on white swastikas. Red is the color of power, of strength, and of blood, of life. This color is no coincidence. (It also reminds us of the use of red in Spielberg's fabulous black-and-white movie Schindler's List.)

In many scenes, Sophie looks out at the sky, at the sun. This appears a clear reference to freedom. But it could be more. It might be a subtle reference to her looking to the Son for her hope. She prays quietly to herself several times in this way. She seems to realize that her idea of a new democracy will survive though she might not. Her idea and ideals will see freedom and the light of a new day, though it still might take some time.

One of the strengths of Sophie Scholl is in the acting. Not only is Jentsch superb as Sophie Scholl, Gerlad Held is award-worthy in the role of Interrogator Mohr. Another strength is in the presentation of a Christian as a normal person whose faith can sustain her. Many movies made by Christian directors, use the hero as a cardboard cartoon, a two-dimensional character to voice the four spiritual laws, and whose prayers can receive a miraculous response from God. Sophie Scholl is a three-dimensional character with real-life issues, and whom God does not bail out. Her relationship to Jesus is what sustained her, and what gave her hope.

There are so many ethical issues that are raised by Sophie Scholl: conscience, God, morality, suffering, lying, accepting the consequences, worthiness of the disenfranchised and handicapped, situational ethics. The list could be expanded. More than this, what this movie does is makes you feel the suffering and pain of a person who could lie to survive and escape but who takes the moral high-ground and the cost that goes with it. Could we do the same if we were in Sophie's place? Are we doing it today in our own situations? You cannot watch Sophie Scholl and remain unchanged.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. I visited the official website for the film Sophie Scholl. On it is an interview with the director, Marc Rothemund. He talks about Sophie's courage in facing her death and wonders how she finds meaning in it. He then makes the following comment that I find to be very interesting:

    "And, of course, as an atheist I ask myself: is it easier to face death as a believer?"

    I would love to hear how Marc Rothemund would answer that question. But what do you think? Is it easier to face death as a believer?