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Brandon Judell

Sophie's Choice: An Interview with the Folks Behind "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days"
Poster for "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days"

"Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" is the latest German film to connect with international audiences. Nominated for a Best-Foreign-Film-of-the-Year Oscar and winner of the Best Bavarian Film award, here is yet another of the recent slate of celluloid offerings contending that the individual can and should make a difference in a society where the enemy might be a Joseph McCarthy, a George W. Bush, a homophobic society, an occupation, misogyny, or the Nazis.

Sholl's nemeses were the latter. During World War II, in Munich, she, her brother and their friends launched a secret organization, the White Rose, that distributed leaflets urging others to defy the fascist state Germany had become. On one such trek, at a university, Sophie and her brother were caught.

The film, as the title so clearly denotes, chronicles the tail-end of Sophie's life, a young woman who, if you prescribe to the feature's stand, valiantly stood up for justice, knowing all the time if she faltered in her convictions there would be a chance she could live.

The following is a brief chat with the film's director Marc Rothemund and its star Julia Jentsch, which took place recently in New York.

BRANDON JUDELL: So everyone knows who Sophie Scholl is in Germany? This is, I believe, the third film on her. In America, she's rather an unknown. But if she is famous in your country, when did that occur? During the war or decades after?

Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) stand trial.

MARC ROTHEMUND: It was decades after. Definitely. Because after the war, Germany was so destroyed. There were also other small resistance groups like the Red Chapel and Stauffenberg. It took until the sixties or seventies when [the public] really focused on all the resistance groups. [These squads were comprised of] more or less really quite normal, ordinary young people. Protestants. Catholics. They were young students, and what made them so famous was they were not military. Not political. Not religious resistance fighters. They were just standing [up and] fighting for human rights.

And in Germany, we have now 190 schools named after Sophie Scholl. The place in front of the original location where we shot the university [scenes] in the center of Munich is called Geschwister-Scholl-Platz. When the biggest German TV station asked its audience, "Who are the best Germans of all time?" Sophie Scholl was far ahead number one.

BJ: So what got the ball rolling for her? Was there a book published about Fraulein Scholl?

MR: For me, there was the motivation two-and-a-half years ago. That was the sixtieth death date of the members of the White Rose (her group). Yes, sixty years after the execution, there were some articles in the newspapers, and what I found out was that this young woman had spent four days in the Gestapo headquarters. I didn't know it before because the other two movies are from '81. Those directors didn't have access to these documents that I found which had never been published before. Nobody knew about these documents. I was the first.

It was surprisingly easy to get these documents today [but it is surprising they existed at all]. Why? Because all the Gestapo headquarters destroyed their documents, but documents dealing with Sophie were sent from the Gestapo to the people's court in Berlin so that the judge could prepare for the case. The Russians then conquered Berlin, and these papers were sent to Moscow. Eventually, the records were sent to East Berlin.

The East Berliner officials checked them out, reading about human rights . . . freedom of speech. Not very good for our communist system back then so they hid all these documents. In 1990, with the unification, all these documents went to the German archives, but the Germans were so busy with the East and West reuniting. It was such an emotional sensation when the Wall fell. The end of the Cold War. Officials were then interested in the Stasi documents of the secret police, of the East German police, that they were not curious enough about the documents of the World War. Now that means for 13 years these papers were lying somewhere in an archive, and I was the first who was interested in them.

If you read the previous works on her, she's seen as a heroine, as a martyr. Everybody thought that Sophie and the other members of the White Rose were just arrested and then they got executed. No! Sophie spent 4 days in the Gestapo headquarters. You learn from the first page of the interrogation she's lying. She's fighting for her life. She's lying. She says, "These are not my leaflets." She's not a heroine. She's afraid of death. She's fighting for her life like a normal young human being. She's sitting opposite a Gestapo interrogation specialist, who believes her for 5 hours. Imagine this mental strength. It's a matter of your life being at stake, and you lie.

Then she had to confess because her brother forgot he had a handwritten note of a friend on him. They arrested very fast the friend by comparing the handwriting. Then Sophie and her brother knew they had to confess because if they went on lying, they would put all the guilt on the others in White Rose. So they confessed their guilt. "It was only my brother and me," and they then went on lying to save the lives of their friends.

We found a letter of Sophie's cellmate that described her three nights in the cell. We found reports about the trial, about the execution. German execution reports. Just take a look at them and you get goose bumps.

And we found the last living sister of Sophie Scholl. She gave us an interview. We found the son of the Gestapo interrogation officer. We found other members of the White Rose. And I think maybe I'm the last director of a generation that can ask the eyewitnesses questions. They will die in a few years, and then there will be no more eyewitnesses of that time.

BJ: (Turning to Julia): Now that you've played a heroine, do you . . .

MR: No, Sophie's not a heroine. That's what we tried to show. That she's a human being.

BJ: Well, yes. A special human being. Almost like Joan of Ark in a sense. Do people like you better since you've plated Sophie? Think you're nicer. Are they mistaking you for Sophie? In real life, are you basically a rotten person?

JULIA JENTSCH: This is often what happens to an actor. When you do any kind of role, the audience thinks she must be like that. Or her private life is like the character's. Of course, every time, you're choosing a part, deciding, "Yes, I would really like to be in this movie," you have to find something that is somehow connected to yourself. But this can be an idea or this can be some sentence in the screenplay. So many different things. You know, I'm not in any [political] party. I'm not active in a political way in something like that. Sometimes strange situations happened after this movie because then many people wrote letters to me or phoned me, asking that I be part of some special demonstration against something. Then, of course, you have to decide whether would I like to help now. I often have to say, "I'm not Sophie Scholl. I can't do it because there is too much thinking that I am really this character."

Copyright © Brandon Judell 2006

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