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The Problem of Nuance: Sophie Scholl and German Escapism

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Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, released in 2005 and directed by Marc Rothemund, represents yet another German film made in the mold of 2004’s Downfall: a documentation of a historical figure’s last days that claims absolute authenticity while exonerating the “German people” under Hitler’s Nazi regime. Granted, such an exculpatory function arises more organically from a film like Days, which focuses on a hero of anti-Nazi dissent, then on Downfall, which records the fall of one of history’s greatest criminals. As such, Days feels less egregious when it suggests that most Germans were fundamentally good people, and in the historical figure of Scholl it finds a seemingly factual (and thus convincing) proof for this suggestion. However, Days ultimately overreaches, using not just Scholl but even her Nazi interrogator to imply the conscience that lay, exposed or buried, in both Nazi and anti-Nazi Germans. This narrative move, perhaps motivated by a misguided devotion to nuance and thus apparently ‘historical accuracy,’ results in a muddled ethical palate that mystifies, rather than clarifies, questions of guilt.

Scholl, the protagonist of the film, represents the most obvious means through which Rothemund suggests the ‘goodness’ of the average non-Jewish German citizen. To an extent, the very decision to bring Sophie Scholl to the silver screen is itself an exculpatory move, as Scholl provides a concrete, non-fictional example of both German resistance to the Nazis and German victimhood at the hands of the Nazis. Retelling her story allows one to construct an illusory understanding of history wherein people like Scholl are the norm rather than the exception. It’s through Scholl that the film addresses the most infamous crime of the Nazi regime: the Holocaust. 

Scholl explicitly denounces the murder of Jews, declaring that all human life is precious. Crucially, she explains that there has been talk of “concentration camps” from soldiers who return from the eastern front, and recounts her shock at discovering that Nazis used “gas and poison” to kill mentally ill children. The impression given by these two statements is one of ignorance; not the ignorance of Scholl, but the ignorance of the general German populace. The scene implies that Germans did not prevent Nazi atrocities for the simple reason that they were either unaware of them or uncertain as to their existence. 

Through Scholl, then, the film suggests that Germans who were aware of the terrible reality (like the White Rose) fought back against their government. The figure of Scholl thus simultaneously constructs the comforting dichotomy of the ignorant German and the good German. The simplicity of the camerawork during this scene, with the standard over the shoulder shot reverse shot, emphasizes the angry righteousness etched in Scholl’s expression and the shrinking posture of her Nazi interlocutor. This filmic display of moral rectitude by an everyday German citizen in the face of a Nazi serves a cathartic function for a contemporary German audience burdened by the inescapable weight of historical guilt.

Yet even the Gestapo interrogator Robert Mohr, is afforded a degree of humanization. Moved by Scholl’s proximity to his own child in terms of age, Mohr offers her a way out, if only she would denounce her ideals. His obvious pain at condemning Scholl to death, and his shame as they exchange glances one last time before her execution, suggests that not all Nazis were utterly devoid of conscience, even if they were devoid of courage. But such humanization, whether or not it is rooted in the historical record, serves an ambiguous purpose in a film intended to commemorate a young victim of the Nazi regime. The film almost appears to displace German guilt to the very top of the Nazi hierarchy, casting Mohr as a victim of the order that he serves: a man of conscience and conviction too blinded by loyalty and cowardice to follow his own moral code. But if even a Nazi official like Mohr, and not just a courageous schoolgirl like Scholl, can be thought of as a victim of the Nazis, then where, exactly, are the perpetrators?

Miscellaneous Notes:

  • The actor who plays the only irredeemably evil Nazi to emerge from the film, President of the People’s Court Roland Freisler, also played a Nazi in downfall. The same is true of the prosecutor. This appears to illustrate a phenomenon observed in one of the readings of Downfall: certain actors tended to star in multiple movies about the Nazi regime, thus creating a ‘star physiognomy’ of historical Nazi films recognizable to a German audience
  • The camerawork throughout the film is generally straightforward. This restraint, combined with the film’s extensive, point-by point interrogation scenes, demonstrate its aspirations to the realism of Downfall.
  • The film’s refusal to show Scholl’s corpse as a gesture of respect to her memory throws into even sharper relief the oddity of Downfall’s decision to do the same for Hitler

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