Now these are anti-war protesters

German film shows life and death of Nazi enemy Sophie Scholl

Don M. Burrows

An important government official stands before a horde of partisans and accuses those questioning the war of demoralizing the troops and giving aid to the enemy. Recent events might come to mind ” including a certain Veterans Day speech.

Of course, it has become in vogue to parallel recent events to World War II, especially among the rhetorical flourishes of our more vocal student activists. But if you want to see some college protesters with real guts, check out Germany’s official submission to the Oscars for best foreign-language film.

Director Marc Rothemund’s “Sophie Scholl: The Last Days,” peeks into the prison cell and interrogation room of one of Germany’s most famous anti-Nazi martyrs, arrested and executed in February 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. Rothemund came to campus Monday to show excerpts of his film and take questions from students.

In an interview last week, Rothemund said making the film was personal for him. Having grown up in Scholl’s hometown of Munich, Germany, where dozens of schools are named after her, he began poring over as-yet unpublished transcripts in the German archives to give a glimpse of Scholl’s final moments.

“In Germany, Sophie Scholl is somewhat seen as a martyr because she threw her life away,” Rothemund said. “But here you see she’s a human being. She fights for her life.”

Rothemund indeed captures the humanity of the woman without compromising her toughness and resolve. We see Scholl (Julia Jentsch) pray to God, plead for her family to be spared and wail at the announcement of her execution. But she also never backs down. Her arguments against the Nazi regime, both to her interrogator and later to her judge, give us a glimpse into the contrasting German mind-sets at the time.

This emphasis on humanity touches the drama’s other players as well. Rothemund doesn’t allow us to make all the Nazis unquestionable bad guys. Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), the criminologist who interrogates Scholl through much of the film, often comes across sympathetically, even while defending his decision to join the National Socialists.

“Hitler and Sophie Scholl are the most contrasting human beings,” explains Rothemund. “But they were once babies. And it’s interesting to learn how one baby became Sophie Scholl and another Hitler.”

Rothemund also seems to have present situations in mind with much of the film. The Nazi officials’ repeated use of the word terrorist and insistence that it’s treasonous to talk about ending the war as opposed to prolonging it, mirror today’s debates about Iraq. Likewise, their assertion that assailing the war and its leaders undermines the troops just might parallel today.

“Sophie Scholl” also reminds us that there were, in fact, German resistors in World War II, no matter how little attention they often get in Hollywood blockbusters. And it highlights how much more comfortable Europeans are about recognizing the communist resistance, something often cut from the American narrative of the war and its players.

All in all, not only does Rothemund give us a powerful profile of humanity, but also he shows in a new light the competing world views at work in Nazi Germany ” and how important it is to remember.