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‘Sophie Scholl’ doesn’t take enough risks

Best foreign film nominee has good performances but little nuance. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Sophie Scholl — The Final Days” has been nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film. Probably only the first half, however, deserves that honor.

Based on the true story of a young woman who was arrested, questioned, tried and executed in just six days for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets as a college student in 1943 Munich, the German picture begins with subtlety and suspense, then builds to an overblown crescendo.

Julia Jentsch is cunning and fearless in the title role, though, especially in the tense scenes in which Sophie spars with Gestapo interrogator Robert Mohr (played with obsessiveness by Alexander Held). Sophie consistently reveals herself to be a cool liar with nerves of steel and a quick wit — qualities we might not have expected from her initially.

Director Marc Rothemund depicts his heroine in the beginning as a God-fearing, seemingly innocent creature, singing along with the radio like a starry-eyed schoolgirl and turning her face upward to smile into the sun. But later in the uninviting confines of Mohr’s office, she will have an answer for every question that’s fired at her, a readymade alibi for why she’s on campus with her brother, fellow Nazi resister Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), when the leaflets eviscerating Hitler are discovered, and why she’s carrying an empty suitcase that happens to be the exact same size as the stacks of paper that were distributed.

(The filmmakers had access to previously unpublished transcripts of the Gestapo interrogations, which provide “Sophie Scholl” with its greatest sense of momentum.)

After hours of hammering her from every direction — even leveling accusations based on incriminating evidence taken from her home — Mohr finds himself in awe of her. “You’re so gifted,” he remarks. “Why don’t you think and feel like us?”

But Sophie has a question of her own: “What if your fuhrer is insane?”

Certainly a smart, strong woman who risked her life — and ultimately lost it — for a cause she so passionately believed in deserves a film that takes some risks, too. In detailing the last days of Sophie’s life, though, Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer have locked themselves into an episodic structure that offers virtually no nuance. We never get a sense of how these events — ones of great seriousness, played out with dizzying speed — affect the people enmeshed in them.

Sophie is always determined. Mohr is always antagonistic. Sophie’s communist cellmate, Else (Johanna Gastdorf), is always supportive. And the judge presiding over the farce of a trial, in which Sophie, Hans and one of their partners are quickly found guilty, is the most two-dimensional of all.

Andre Hennicke portrays Judge Roland Freisler in singularly shrill fashion — eyes popping, veins bulging, voice piercing with disdain and venom. It’s a performance that’s startling not for its closed-minded cruelty, but for its high-pitched volume, and its leads to a heavy-handed ending that leaves no question as to Sophie’s martyrdom.