Rose and fall
The true story of an anti-Nazi heroine is exposing a new generation to some war truths, writes Clarence Tsui
MARC ROTHEMUND'S latest film was set in Germany near the end of the second world war, when the beleaguered Nazi regime was buckling under the Allies' onslaught. His main protagonist, now one of the best-known wartime Germans and already a central figure in several films about that era, is made to come across as a vulnerbale human being.
Sophie Scholl - The Final Days might be centred on the struggle of an anti-Nazi activist before her death-by-guillotine in 1943, but the film bears an uncanny similarity to last year's Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel's controversial account of Adolf Hitler's last hours in his bunker. The lead characters of the two films stand at opposite ends of a spectrum of good and evil - one is a young university student killed for her pacifist ideals, the other's a warmongering tyrant - but what brings The Final Days and Downfall together are their attempts to evoke a sense of humanity in both hero and villain.
Just as scenes of Hitler being courteous to his secretaries, his chef and his dog - all straight from historical records - caused outrage among Downfall's detractors, Final Days also courts controversy - albeit on a minor scale - when it chronicles Scholl's officially documented attempt to lie her way out of custody by denying her involvement in the anti-Nazi pamphlets she and her brother, Hans, placed at the University of Munich on February 18, 1943.
Earlier films about Scholl - such as two made in 1982, Michael Verhoeven's The White Rose (named after the small unit of anti-Nazi resistance activists the Scholls belonged to) and Percy Adlon's Last Five Days - portrayed the young woman as unwavering and strong-willed throughout her clandestine work and prison ordeal. The fact that Final Days focused on Scholl's interrogation at Gestapo headquarters - a process reconstructed from unpublished transcripts concealed in the East German archives until 1990 - allowed viewers a perspective that differed from previous portrayals.
'The White Rose is a political movie - Sophie Scholl is not allowed to cry because White Rose members must be strong,' says Rothemund, who first watched Verhoeven's film as a teenager. 'It was a movie about the resistance group but ends with the arrests. It's exciting to see them printing and distributing the leaflets but one thing that interests me is how you feel and behave if you're arrested.' Scholl's resilience is still omnipresent in The Final Days - she is seen breaking down only after her confession and also when learning of her impending death in 30 minutes. But in both instances she did so only when alone.
'In the beginning, Sophie Scholl was fighting for her life - she's lying, pretending to be innocent and [saying], 'I'm a non-political person',' says Rothemund. 'In Germany people thought she was a hero and that her brother was a hero, and they were arrested and were saying, 'Kill me'. This would make them martyrs - but they were normal people.'
She insisted on her innocence until the Gestapo uncovered incriminating evidence against her and her fellow White Rose members. It was then that Scholl admitted to her action and regaled Gestapo officer Robert Mohr with her convictions, to the point of rejecting a lifeline he offered after three days of questioning, preferring to die rather than compromise her ideals. The Scholls were defiant during their show trial, and Sophie stood up to Roland Freisler - the notorious presiding judge at the Nazis' People's Court who had condemned more than 2,600 people to death in three years - saying, 'You're hanging us today, but tomorrow it'll be your heads that will roll.'
The Final Days - which won the best director and best actress awards at last year's Berlin Film Festival, and was nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards in March - is the latest in a recent explosion of German films which delve into one of the most sensitive chapters in contemporary German history. Other recent examples are Downfall and Niko von Glasow's The Edelweiss Pirates, a film about a group of youngsters hanged without trial in Cologne in 1943 for defying Nazi laws, from dress code to the statutory denunciation of Jews.
While American and British films about wartime Germany have abounded since the battles ceased in 1945 - and an impressively varied array there is, from Escape to Victory to Schindler's List - it's an issue that was taboo for the country's own filmmakers.
'[When] Michael Verhoeven wanted to shoot The White Rose in 1981, nobody helped him,' says Rothemund, who got in touch with the director before he launched into The Final Days. 'In the early 1980s, the German government said, 'Don't shoot the movie - the international community has just started to see Germany not as Nazis any more. Don't dig into the past'.'
According to Rothemund, his generation is not weighed down by the guilt their elders carried.
'The previous generation are children of the Nazi generation and they still feel guilt. But the grandchildren generation - people born in the 1960s and 70s, are born a long time after the war - we're not guilty but we feel responsible that nobody forgets the war crimes,' says 38-year- old Rothemund.
'The people who said 'Heil Hitler' and followed fascist policies had such a bad conscience and they did not talk about it and they were not talking about the war to their children and grandchildren. We want to know what happened there, so we are looking for witnesses and victims to find out the reasons for what happened during that time.
'The grandchildren generation wants to know about the terrible time of their parents. You want to know where they come from, what parts they played during those times, whether they were victims, yes-men or murderers.'
And the film shows a worrying number of collaborators just as it champions the White Rose activists, of which six were beheaded and a dozen more arrested. Jakob Schmidt, the cleaner who apprehended the Scholls after Sophie launched a stack of pamphlets into the atrium, is seen as an eager collaborator with the Gestapo.
One figure who The Final Days lets off kindly is Mohr, the officer who questioned Sophie Scholl for three days. Mohr almost freed her after a six-hour interrogation on the first day - a decision that was withdrawn when the Gestapo raided the Scholls' home and found unused stamps and the typewriter used for the anti-Nazi pamphlets. He offered Sophie a reprieve, apparently astonished by the student's resolve.
'We were the first [filmmakers] interested in the officer - he tried to save her life even when he would have gone to prison. And we thought, 'What kind of Nazi would this be - someone who would try to save her life after just three days [of questioning]?' says Rothemund.
What followed were days of calls from his assistants to all the Mohrs they found in the phonebook in an attempt to find his offspring. Eventually, they found his son, who agreed to an interview because he thinks 'his father was not a murderer, he was just a policeman'.
'His son was always sad that his father was a Nazi, but he was glad his father tried to save her life,' says Rothemund. 'And the last thing this guy said to me was, 'What could my father have done? He could not have quit his job because the Gestapo would kill him, too'.'
Rothemund also says he believes that The Final Days is essential in giving young Germans - if not youngsters worldwide - a broader perspective on how some Germans reacted to Hitler's rule.
Rothemund also sees a heroic aspect to the work being done for The Final Days: the preservation of a memory fast fading with the demise of war survivors. 'There are still some members of the White Rose, but they're between 80 or 90. I'm the last generation of directors who can ask witnesses. It's just like survivors of [the] Nanking [Massacre in 1937],' he says. 'In 10 years' time, there will be no witnesses.'
Sophie Scholl - The Final Days opens today