Sophie Scholl Review
February 1943, the tide of the war in Europe is turning, the Germans having suffered heavy losses in Stalingrad and finding themselves now besieged on all fronts. It’s at such a moment that, in an attempt to deny the inevitable that has something of an air of desperation about it, the Nazi command declares that they are engaged in total war, determined to see their struggle through to the bitter end. It’s against such a backdrop than that a group of young German students belonging to a resistance cell known as the White Rose group decide that it is time for more direct action to open the eyes of the German people to the increasingly insane and inhumane policies of the Führer. Committed to peaceful means of resistance, printing and distributing pamphlets of counter-propaganda, they decide to go further and place of thousands of leaflets in the halls of the university in Munich with the intention of inciting the students into action. It’s a calculated risk, but one necessary to make an impact at this crucial point in the war, yet it’s precisely this delicate timing that makes the risk even greater, with serious consequences should they be caught.
The severity with which the Nazi authorities do indeed come down on Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans Scholl and other member of the White Rose group when they are indeed captured attempting to distribute the leaflets on 18th February 1943, is historically documented, the manner of their sentencing only more astonishing for the unprecedented speed with which the authorities would act, carrying out the interrogation, trial and execution within five days of the young people’s action at the university. It’s this documentation however, much of it in the form of actual courtroom and interrogation transcripts only coming to light when the East German archives were opened in the 1990s, that make the case of Sophie Scholl and the depiction of those final days in Marc Rothemund’s film an exceptionally powerful historical drama that helps it overcome the cinematic and dramatic limitations of the story.
With Rothemund however – a director not noted for drama having previously only made comedies that are like the German equivalent of American Pie - those perceived limitations are cleverly turned into advantages. Some tension and drama can be expected in the opening scenes with the distribution of the leaflets and the arrest of Sophie (Julia Jentsch) and Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), but barring Sophie’s dramatic sweep of leaflets down into the university courtyard, there is little sense of grand gesture, but rather a grim and matter-of-fact account of the known historical facts. For the larger part of the film then Sophie Scholl: The Final Days plays out more like a courtroom drama and much of that is a two-hander between Jentsch’s Scholl and her Gestapo interrogator Mohr (Alexander Held). Both actors play their respective roles exceptionally well, Scholl needing to remain impassive, confident and continually come up with convincing answers to the questions put to her, while Mohr’s reaction to her as her interrogator alternates between suspicion, menace, anger and mystification.
The dramatic tension that arises through the constant interrogation are obvious, the close focus on Sophie’s incarceration affirming her confinement, cut off from outside support. Even so, no matter how strong the performances or authentically transcribed the script might be, there is still the danger of the film in such a situation becoming talky and preachy, or being little more than a TV issue movie. Rothemund however manages to find other moments to present a wider range of sentiments and greater sense of what is at stake through Sophie’s discussions with her cell-mate Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf), through the circumstance of her fiancé actually being on the front at Stalingrad and through her reminiscences of happier times, her concerns for her mother, her fears for her friends and her speculation on the progress of the war. Occasionally, such as in one discussion between Mohr and Scholl on their ideological differences, it can seem a little fanciful, not to say expositional, but it’s dramatically essential to the creation of a real, living person out of a historical character, showing her in the context of the world at that point and showing the human sentiments that underlie her actions – love, peace, friendship, family – all the things that have been lost through blind adherence to the commands of a madman.
That much is within the director and scriptwriter’s ability to control and they achieve that exceptionally well, as do the actors through their performances and delivery. All this however is just, as it should be, to serve the film’s real purpose, which more than just being a faithful transcription, period detail or recreation of historical events, is about highlighting the extraordinary sentiments of texts themselves which recount the insight and incredible bravery of the White Rose group to express truths that the Nazi command and the German public were either ignorant of or unwilling to confront. It’s a testament to the fundamental truths expressed here that those sentiments still remain highly relevant in a modern-day context. As Scholl put to Mohr at one point in the film, giving him no recourse to abdication of responsibility to the prevailing powers for his actions, "The law changes, but conscience doesn’t".
Sophie Scholl is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Drakes Avenue. The film is presented on dual-layer BD50 with a 1080/24p encode. The disc is region-free.
Presented at a ratio of 1.78:1, the transfer manages to achieve an excellent balance between a clear, detailed, accurate HD image and the qualities of film negative. That means that the transfer is stable, flows well and exhibits true colours, while at the same time handling well the inherent grain and occasional softness in darker scenes. Sophie Scholl is a largely dark film, but the blacks are solid and shadow detail is good. One scene in particular, the first scene where Sophie Scholl is interrogated by Mohr, demonstrates how good the transfer is, the figures standing out from the deep green wallpaper in the background that shows detail and texture, with dark objects remaining distinct from heavy shadows, with even the smoke from a cigarette floating impressively across the screen. More brightly lit scenes also show how good the detail is, but can also show up some minor limitations with occasional bleed and perhaps even slight edge enhancement. The high specifications of the disc however ensure that there are few if any other issues in the digital transfer.
Please note that images shown in this review are promotional images and not actual screenshots from the Blu-ray disc.
Disappointingly, only a PCM Stereo audio option is provided. It’s clear that the film’s soundtrack could benefit from distribution to surround speakers for background noise, ambience in the interrogation rooms and prison cells, for the air-raid section and for the music score, but in the event the PCM track has a strong mix with the kind of dynamic you would expect. The overall tone is good, dialogue is clear and a good balance is achieved between the various elements of the mix, with even silent passages carrying weight.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. The font is white and well-sized, blending in well rather than standing out from the image, yet remaining clear and readable at all times.
Another significant area of improvement with the film’s presentation on Blu-ray is in the area of extra features. As with most of their SD-DVD releases, there were none provided when Sophie Scholl came out on DVD under the ICA Projects banner a few years ago (reviewed here by Anthony Nield).
This time around we have a letterboxed Trailer (1:55), and a substantial Making Of (54:58) which, through brief interview snippets with the director, cast and crew and a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, covers the context of the story and how the film was made.
Twelve Deleted Scenes (36:26) are mostly extensions to scenes already in the film, clearly trimmed back for time. They are worthwhile viewing, rounding out the scenes a little, notably in the trials, which are consequently not quite as abrupt and expedient as they are in the final cut of the film, nor is the defence quite as mute (though it is no less ineffectual).
Historical Interviews round out the features well by providing real-life testimonies. White Rose member Franz Muller talks about how the interrogations and trials were conducted, and there are a few words from Walter Gebel, the nephew of Sophie Scholl’s cellmate Else Gebel on how Scholl conducted herself in prison (19:40). Willi Mohr, the son of Inspector Mohr talks about growing as the son of a Gestapo officer and recounts how his father wanted to help Sophie Scholl (7:12). There is also a longer interview with Elisabeth Hartnagel, the sister of Sophie and Hans Scholl (30:25), at the end of which there is brief but fascinating actual footage of how Freisler’s trials were conducted.
The extras all have optional English subtitles. All extra features are 480/60i Standard Definition.
A solid piece of filmmaking with excellent performances, the dramatic content of Sophie Scholl and the strength of its script all serve to bring out the importance as well as the relevance of the actions of the White Rose group and in particular the courage of one young woman. The film’s transfer to a High Definition format also does full justice to the film’s qualities. Although they have a strong catalogue of challenging films you never had any sense of their being much love or commitment put into Drakes Avenue/ICA Projects DVD releases, so it’s very pleasing to see what they have achieved with their flagship HD release. An impressive package all round.