Last stanza in the life of Germany’s most famous anti-Nazi heroine gets a cleanly directed, straight up-and-down and finally moving retelling in “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.” An ace performance by 26-year-old Julia Jentsch (“The Edukators,” “Snowland”), as the quietly determined Munich student who was beheaded for distributing counter-propaganda leaflets in 1943, gives pic a focused dramatic power. However, beyond fests, the talky movie, mostly concentrated on her post-arrest interrogation, is more likely to end up on small rather than large screens offshore.
Subject of the 21-year-old Sophie and her fellow members (mostly university students) of the White Rose resistance group has been dealt with in two previous German movies, both starring Lena Stolze and made in 1982. Michael Verhoeven’s “The White Rose” largely concentrated on the formation of the group and ended with Sophie’s arrest; Percy Adlon’s “Five Last Days” centered on the same period as the current item but through the eyes of Scholl’s middle-aged cellmate, Else Gebel.
Helmer Marc Rothemund’s version follows Sophie during the last six days of her life, from the eve of distributing the leaflets at Munich U., through her arrest, interrogation, trial and execution. Format is a familiar cinematic one, and while the movie isn’t adorned with any extra stylistic riffs, it transcends docudrama with a chilling authenticity derived from script’s use of actual Gestapo documents and official minutes that had remained in East German archives until 1990.
After enjoying a brief sing-song with a girlfriend, Sophie (Jentsch) sets out with her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) to the group’s underground press. They’re duplicating a pamphlet that insists that, following the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad, which cost 330,000 German lives, the country should sue for peace, as the war is unwinnable.
Hans believes the document will ignite a spontaneous student rebellion, and Sophie, whose fiance narrowly escaped death on the Russian front, goes with him to distribute a bunch of leaflets at Munich U. in person. Their perilous mission, in the empty corridors of the building while everyone is in class, is grippingly portrayed, ending in their surprise arrest by a vigilant janitor.
At Gestapo HQ, Sophie is questioned separately from Hans by Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), a punctilious, ultra-neat professional criminologist who, despite his initial suspicions, ends up being convinced by Sophie’s calm explanations for her being at the scene of the crime. The first of several such face-offs across a desk in Mohr’s lugubrious office, this is one of the pic’s most involving sequences, setting up the relationship between the two.
For Sophie, this involves first lying, then trying to save the other members of the group after she learns Hans has confessed. Mohr’s arc ranges from authoritarian bullying through clinical questioning to a kind of sad disappointment that such a smart young woman as Sophie, with an evident passion for her country, can’t fight on his side. The irony is that Mohr himself has a son Sophie’s age who has been sent to the Eastern Front.
These Q&A sessions form the bulk of the film, interspersed with less intense moments between Sophie and Else (Johanna Gastdorf), jailed for being a Communist. Overall, the pic has a cool, reasoned atmosphere that reflects the real-life Sophie’s demeanor during these days, as attested to by witnesses.
Dramatically, film’s one false step is in making the show-trial judge, Roland Freisler (Andre Hennicke), into a ranting pro-Nazi. However, it’s in the final moments of the trial, as Sophie and Hans calmly call down the inevitability of justice on him, that the picture starts to click at an emotional level.
Though she looks and sounds nothing like the real Sophie, who had a boyish haircut and a southern German accent, Jentsch is terrific in the eponymous role, communicating her character’s utter conviction in doing the right thing for her people, with the minimum of emoting. Held, likewise, is first-rate as the career interrogator serving his current masters with efficiency.
Rothemund, who previously directed the very different romantic criss-crosser “Love Scenes from Planet Earth” (1998) and teen sex-comedy “Ants in the Pants” (1999), directs with cool restraint, supported by d.p. Martin Langer’s wintry, sharply lit lensing.