The first of three German films in competition at the Berlinale opened to warm applause and more than a few tears on Sunday. "Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days" tells the story of a young anti-Nazi resistance fighter.
Julia Jentsch portrays resistance heroine Sophie Scholl
Sophie Scholl's story is a familiar one. She and her brother were among the members of the White Rose student movement, which printed and distributed flyers inciting Germans to "passive resistance" against Hitler and the Nazis. The siblings were arrested when a janitor spotted them placing stacks of leaflets around the main hall of Munich's Ludwig-Maximilian University.
Following their interrogation by the Gestapo, Sophie and Hans Scholl were tried for treason along with fellow White Rose member Christoph Probst. All three were executed on Feb. 22, 1943. Further trials and executions of other White Rose members followed.
German directors have brought the story to the screen before. In 1982, Percy Adlon made "Five Last Days," while four years later, Michael Verhoeven made "The White Rose."
But the director of "Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days," Marc Rothemund (photo), said he was inspired to look at the story again when, following the 60th anniversary of Sophie's death, he read the transcripts of her interrogation and trial, which had been preserved over the decades in an archive of the East German secret police.
"The transcripts had an unbelievable effect on me," Rothemund said. "She lied so well for five hours to the Gestapo that they almost believed her and let her go. And then, when the Gestapo found more evidence, Sophie and Hans made such an effort to convince everybody that they were the only ones involved. It was so new for me, and so dramatic, that it was perfect for a film."
New breed of filmmaker
Rothemund's film picks up where Verhoeven's left off -- with the arrest and interrogation of the Scholl siblings. Throughout, we experience the events leading up to the execution from the perspective of Sophie, movingly portrayed by Germany's new rising star, Julia Jentsch.
Scene from "Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days"
"We wanted the audience to bind themselves to a single character and identify with her," Rothemund said.
His decision to keep the focus on Sophie's emotional journey is partly what helps give the film its mainstream appeal. With "Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days" Rothemund joins the ranks of a new breed of German filmmaker -- young directors who are able to look at the Nazi era and make dramatic, almost Hollywood-style films without the ponderous, edifying dynamic that characterized past films on the topic.
Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in the film "Downfall"
German audiences are still adjusting to the change. When Oliver Hirschbiegel's Oscar-nominated film about Hitler's final days, "The Downfall" was released, movie-goers complained that the film showed too much of the dictator's human side.
In the same vein is Dennis Gansel's "Napola," a typical coming-of-age story about a working-class boy attending a private school -- except that the school in question is the Nazis' elite training facility for future leaders of the Third Reich.
"I think it's a question of a new generation looking at this history from a new perspective," said Fred Breinersdorf, who wrote the "Sophie Scholl" screenplay. "The first generation who lived through the war felt guilty and hopeless. The second generation was more analytical and pedagogical. But the new generation sees the Nazi period in more personal terms, and they ask things like, 'What would I have done in that situation? Would I have had the courage to resist?''
Sending the right message?
Critics of the new, personal approach of these films claim that they only serve to glorify the Third Reich -- a claim Rothemund denies.
Speaking to reporters after his film was screened at the Berlinale, he said the reactions the film got from eyewitnesses to the events surrounding the members of the White Rose prove the opposite. People who knew Sophie and Hans Scholl told him of their shock and dismay each time they open the newspaper and read about the activities of neo-Nazis in Germany. "The fact that this danger is still present shows how important it is to make these films," Rothemund said. "We have to make such films to show young people today, to affect them emotionally, as long as the threat of neo-Nazis still exists."