This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
A number of big names — Dame Judi Dench, Keira Knightley, Charlize Theron, and Reese Witherspoon — were Academy Award nominees for Best Actress in 2005. And Witherspoon, the winner for her role in Walk the Line, certainly deserved high honors. But could it be that voters overlooked a performance that’s even more riveting, memorable, and inspiring than any of these?
You may think so when you see Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. In this German-made movie, Julia Jentsch plays the role of a valiant 21-year-old hero who stood up against the Nazis, and who boldly proclaimed her faith even as she denounced Hitler as a liar. Watch her stand strong against the relentless, ferocious challenges of Nazi interrogator Robert Mohr, played with similar intensity by Alexander Held.
If the real Sophie Scholl was anything like the character played by Jentsch here — and the extensive research performed by director Mark Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer indicates that she was — then she deserves a place alongside history’s most revered and celebrated Christian women. We haven’t seen a comparable clash between a principled heroine and a determined, malevolent villain since Agent Clarice Starling matched wits with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. But where Starling and Lecter only met in a few fleeting scenes, this battle of the minds goes on and on, until you’re breathless with the heat of it.
Working from records of Scholl’s interrogation and incarceration that had long been unavailable, Rothemund and Breinersdorfer give us a fast-moving, feverish account of six days, a span of time in which the determined young woman goes from a covert freedom-fighter to a prisoner. In the opening scenes, she’s an enthusiastic, appealing student with an irrepressible zeal for the truth. She helps her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) and a covert operation called “The White Rose” produce and distribute pamphlets that describe how the Third Reich caused the massacre at Stalingrad and forced Jews into concentration camps.
But when she’s arrested, after a nerve-wracking covert operation at the nearby university, the true tests of her character begin. The virtue and verve that Scholl demonstrated, first in deceiving her interrogators, and later in endeavoring to save her friends and family from execution, will amaze you, just as the real Sophie Scholl inspired Germans. Today, more than a hundred German schools are named after her, and Jentsch’s portrayal of Scholl may just inspire more brave young souls to pursue their own quests of justice and truth against all odds.
Scholl stands out on the big screen for several reasons:
First, she’s not made up to be glamorous. Hollywood often gives audiences short cuts to feeling sympathy for “the good guys” by casting super-appealing, beautiful figures in the role. Jentsch’s portrayal of Scholl lets her strength come from her argument, not her sex appeal.
Second, the filmmakers don’t rely on exaggerating the wickedness of the villain in order to make us root for Scholl’s survival. Instead, they portray her bravery as so audacious, so intelligent, and so spirited that we cannot help but stand in awe.Which leads us to the third unique characteristic of Sophie Scholl— she relied on God, not herself, for strength, and Rothemund, a professing atheist, portrays her prayers without flinching. How many Christian artists are so willing to thoughtfully portray the perspectives of unbelievers? The filmmakers’ work is an honorable tribute, in that they did not edit this aspect of her life in order to provide something more palatable for mainstream audiences. (Unfortunately, not all critics are willing to acknowledge this. One prominent mainstream critic tells us it was Scholl’s “faith in the future” that sustained her. I’m not sure what movie she was watching.)
But Scholl is not the only highlight of the film. Held’s portrayal of Mohr is also award-worthy. Moviegoers have become accustomed to soulless big-screen Nazis, but Held gives us a Gestapo agent with a mind like an engine, and we can see the gears in his brain grinding as he analyzes Scholl’s impassioned defense. He starts out looking to ensnare her. But as he sifts her words, his face takes on a haunted pall — he realizes, on some level, that he cannot win this fight even if he kills her. She has the moral high ground, and he knows it.
Some may criticize the film’s other memorable villain — Nazi judge Roland Freisler (André Hennicke) — whose hysterical shrieking and gesticulating from the bench look like a textbook case of overacting. But records show that, indeed, this is a spot-on impersonation of one of Hitler’s maniacal henchmen.
Martin Langer’s cinematography is sufficient, but hardly imaginative. And greater attention to the early scenes might have helped acquaint us with Scholl’s personality and past better. But the film’s effect on viewers is undeniable. It won two Silver Bear awards — Best Director and Best Actress — at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival, along with its nomination at the Oscars. And mainstream critics, some of whom jump at the opportunity to smack down faith-oriented films for shoddy craftsmanship, are raving about how deeply it moved them.
If this is not reason enough for you to hurry out and buy a ticket, consider one more remarkable aspect of this film. Rothemund and Breinersdorfer remember to consider something about their champion that most hero-movies forget — her parents. When we meet Scholl’s mother and father, they are understandably distressed. But they are proud as well — proud that their daughter would rise to acts of courage and conviction; proud that she learned to care for the weak and the oppressed; proud that she would not merely swallow what her government told her, but followed her curiosity to the truth. Heroes do not spontaneously burst from the ether — they are raised.
That’s the kind of heroism the world needs today, both from young people who care about the future, and from parents who set an example. So even if you know how the story ends, take your family, friends, and neighbors to see Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It’s one of those rare and wonderful films that offers a vivid portrayal of faith without compromising standards of excellence.