Sophie Scholl

I have a new heroine to root for, not just on Oscar night, but for a long time to come. Until today, I didn’t know the story of Sophie Scholl. But now, I’ve watched Michael Verhoeven’s 1982 film The White Rose and will be rooting for a newer retelling of the same story on Sunday, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which has been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. The new film is drawn from transcripts of “the People’s Court” trial in February of 1943; these transcripts became available after the wall came down in 1989. (This suggests to me that the skepticism of this post from Crooked Timber may be misplaced…)

Both films tell the true story of a small group of college students in Munich who were executed in 1943 for their resistance to Nazism. Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie, three other students and, later, the philosophy professor whose anti-Nazi lectures inspired them, wrote and distributed leaflets denouncing Nazism. The acting is strong throughout the film. What I found most moving was the uneven commitments of the members and their shifting loyalties. As easy as it might be to depict these six as martyrs from the start, Verhoeven is careful to make them seem familiar, like idealistic college students. One has young children. One is most excited about the pamphlets when the physical danger of getting caught is far. Several of them balk at promoting something more than just articulating opposition. None of them can initially imagine the use of a woman among them. As for Sophie, she doesn’t break up with her German-soldier boyfriend. Instead, she bickers with him when he visits her on leave.

Unlike many movies about great, brave people, The White Rose tells the story of the good and the brave, of young people who threatened the Nazi regime. I did not feel that I was watching a film about saints. They—Hans, Sophie, and Christoph Probst—were executed on the day of their trial. They believed, as university students and children of Weimar Germany, that executions could only happen 99 days after a trial and they hoped, given the German Army’s losses in Russia, that those 99 days might lead to the end of the war. I understand, from a colleague who has seen the new film, that many admirers of the Scholls are eager to insist that they sought their own martyrdom, that they were careless because they wanted to invite attention, to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Verhoeven’s film doesn’t take that approach: he shows, instead, that, when their death comes, they face it with both shock and tremendous bravery. For me, that—the ability of a person who is just beyond the normal reaches of bravery to rise to greatness in the face of evil and injustice—resonates much more deeply.