Dying as she lived

Simon Smart reviews Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

What went through Sophie Scholl’s mind in the last seconds of her life, as she lay handcuffed on a cold bench  – the heavy blade of a guillotine raised above her? Where did her thoughts take her as the macabre machine prepared to bring an abrupt, cruel end to her short and remarkable life? Viewers of the film Sophie Scholl – the final days, may well ask that question at its conclusion. Some hints along the way might help with an answer.

The 2005 movie tracks the last week of the life of a 21-year old German student, who in February 1943, along with her brother Hans, was executed by the Nazis for treason. Her crime – to distribute leaflets with anti-Nazi messages across Germany and in the University in Munich.

Sophie Scholl’s story has been told before but historical records of the interrogation and trial held in East German archives and inaccessible until 1990 gave director Mark Rothemund and screenplay writer Fred Breinersdorfer the fuel for the most comprehensive depiction yet. Nominated for an Oscar, the film manages to portray a stirring but skilfully unsentimental story of true courage and integrity in the face of an immense and frightening enemy.

When Sophie Scholl joined her brother Hans in Munich in 1942 to attend university, she immediately joined his ‘White Rose’ organisation that sought to waken the German people to the monstrous crimes of Nazism; to stir a population out of an induced coma and into opposition to the malignant monolithic regime. The leaflets they distributed through the mail declared ‘Down with Hitler’ and carried crossed out Swastikas. They painted the words ‘freedom’ on the walls of the university at night. They called for an end to the mistreatment of the Jews and the disabled. The war could not be won, they wrote.

As far as student protests go, it all seems rather tame until we recall the context in which it took place. Nazism did not tolerate dissent. By the late 30s all sections of the population had been brought into line. Most did not dare speak up. The risks were well known to the group. They knew their lives were on the line. Sophie’s younger sister, Elizabeth Hartnagel, who was interviewed in preparation for the film, said it was Hans and Sophie’s compassion for the less fortunate that drove them to stand out from the silent majority.

Vitally important to the story is the sense of the big picture that motivated the action of the obstinate siblings. In the film Sophie is repeatedly pictured looking to the sky⎯rays of sunlight illuminating her face through the prison bars as she looks beyond her circumstances to the light of the sun and an alternative vision. Importantly we see this both before and after her arrest. She clearly feels imprisoned in a culture where freedom is only a crude and cynical illusion.

Sophie Scholl was a woman of deep Christian faith. To his credit, and despite his own lack of belief, Rothemund remains true to the story and does not hide this fact. ‘I am convinced that Sophie culled great strength from her faith just before her death, when she was so alone,’ says actress Julia Jentsch  who played the role of Sophie in the film.

Sophie’s interrogation by a veteran Gestapo officer Robert Mohr provides the dramatic core of the narrative, and it is here in microcosm that the choices of the German nation are seen most starkly. The Nazi characters present images of suffocating efficiency and soulless formality. Mohr is no exception. Alarmingly juxtaposed is the moral bankruptcy of Mohr set against the high ideals and courage of Scholl. ‘I’m proud of what I did,’ she tells him. ‘I’d do the same again. You have the wrong worldview not me.’ She speaks of decency, morals and God. ‘God doesn’t exist’ explodes Mohr, barely able to mask the desperation in his voice.

Once in the dock and in front of the hateful and notorious judge Roland Freisler, Sophie, her brother and their friend Christoph Probst must have known their fate was sealed. Freisler’s hysterial ranting looks implausibly overdone until you see original footage of him in action and read other accounts of his murderous campaign on behalf of the Fuhrer. We essentially see a show trial where the regime’s ruthlessness and determination to crush any opposition is on display in all its hateful paranoid smallness. Rotten to the core, Nazism was teetering on the brink of destruction as the Eastern front bled the nation to near-death. The desperation is evident in the drastic action of this ‘people’s court’.

The courtroom depiction truly is frightening. Yet even here the young dissidents speak prophetically and bravely. ‘I wanted to open people’s eyes and to put an end to the terrible slaughter of other peoples and Jews even sooner than it will be ended by the allies,’ declares Sophie. ‘Your master race really wants peace. It wants human dignity to be respected again. It wants God, conscience and empathy … but people are too afraid to speak up.’ You will soon be standing where we stand now,’ she defiantly tells Freisler as she is led from the room, the grim sentence delivered with jolting swiftness.

Rothemund was determined to depict not only an historically accurate narrative, but one that contemporary audiences could relate to and see the relevance for their own lives:

  How do we react when we are confronted with injustice? How far are we willing to go with our personal commitment? There are still wars and dictatorships today all over the world. Only recently did the people in Ukraine go out on the streets to protest even though they knew that they could have been mowed down by tanks … But the issue of civil courage is also one that we face in our everyday lives: for example, in bullying at the workplace or at school, where the weaker ones are trampled on. To rise up against injustice, to refuse to close our eyes: this will always remain an important issue.  

Alarmingly Sophie's interrogation records show how she turned down an opportunity – offered by Mohr – for a milder charge. The carrot was offered at the price of her ideals and she would not budge from her position. This decision remains perhaps the most extraordinary part of the story, according to Mark Rothemund:

  I admire her courage. She turned down the 'golden bridge' offered to her by the interrogation officer Robert Mohr: thus practically signing her own death sentence. I find this approach to death quite startling: how does such a life-affirming, positive-minded young woman like Sophie Scholl come to terms with the fact that her life is being taken away from her? How does she find a meaning in her death? And, of course, as an atheist I ask myself: is it easier to face death as a believer?  

At one level the protest of these idealistic students looks fruitless and pitiful. It was quickly mopped up. The protester's lives rapidly snuffed out. But perhaps Sophie Scholl, in her final seconds, was looking beyond her place in history⎯her vision taking her forward in time to when millions of the ‘white rose’ leaflets would be dropped by allied aircraft over Germany late in the war with the title ‘Manifesto of the students of Munich.’ Or even beyond that minor victory to when the square outside the university in Munich would be named after her and her brother; or to when those around the world would find something transcendent in her story re-told in celluloid and formulated for a modern audience.

The chief executioner later testified that he had never seen someone die so bravely. As the writer Clive James described it, ‘Not a whimper of fear, not a sigh of regret for the beautiful life she might have led. She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was gone.’.  

Sophie’s choice was indeed a confronting one. The consequences of her actions brutally clear. Her protest surely makes sense only if the God she believed in is real. How else would such a sacrifice be worth it? In the end it was to that God that she looked to find meaning in both her life and in her death.

Simon Smart is the Head of Research and Communications at CPX