When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.
Director Marc Rothemund’a film is a fitting memorial to a small but brave group of students who dared to question Hitler’s insane war and oppression of the Jews. It is the second German film to honor “The White Rose,” as the University of Munich students called their secret organization. (There also was a documentary on Die Weisse Rose.) I reviewed Michael Verhoeven’s fine 1982 film in theses pages many years ago, but it has been so long ago that I cannot remember enough of the details to compare the two films. I can only say that the new one is a riveting portrait of two young people, Sophie and Hans Scholl (Julia Jentsch and Fabian Hinrichs), brother and sister, who paid the supreme price for standing up to what they knew to be unspeakable evil in February of 1943. The newer film also benefits from newly released Nazi interrogation transcripts that have come to light since the fall of the East German Communist government.
The White Rose provided an opportunity for students to gather and question their government on the basis of reports they have heard about failures of the German army on the eastern front and the atrocities against Jews and Russian peasants being committed by their soldiers. The students have a mimeograph machine on which they print out their protests and bulletins. None of the students engage in sabotage or other disruptive measures. They just question the official propaganda their people are being fed and ask for their nation to cease and desist. Hans and Sophie volunteer to distribute the latest leaflet at their University, and in a suspenseful sequence we watch as the two tip toe through the hallways, dropping small stacks here and there. Finding that she has extras, Sophie leaves a stack on the ledge of the balcony overlooking a large indoor courtyard, and then she pushes them over the side. This proves their undoing, the janitor spotting them and loudly calling for the security guards.
Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), a Nazi toady with a smaller version of Hitler’s mustache, interrogates Sophie, while her brother is being questioned separately. She has an alibi that is almost believable, but she also had possession of a suitcase just large enough to hold the stacks of leaflets, as Mohr shows her. Steadfastly maintaining her innocence at first, she finally gives in in the face of the overwhelming evidence and her brother’s confession. She tries to shield Hans by claiming sole authorship of the anti-Nazi leaflet. Brother and sister are brought together at their trial, along with a now contrite third member. Theirs becomes the ordeal, as attested by 1 Peter 1:6-7, in which they are ‘tested by fire.” The interrogation and trial scenes are based on the Nazi transcripts found in East Germany after the war, and so there is not a single false note overly dramatizing the scenes. How these two young people stood up to the withering tirade from Judge Roland Fresler (Andre Hennicke), while the third student caved in and begged for mercy, is marvelous and stirring. Sophie and her brother believe that they have a month or more to get their affairs in order when they are read the guilty verdict and sentence of death, but instead they are told the sentence will be carried out immediately.
Sophie is a believing Catholic, so she finds some sustenance in prayer, and reassurance from the priest who blesses and tells her that God is with her just before her execution. There is also a moment of grace when the matron breaks the rules and allows her parents to see her for the last time. Though broken-hearted, her father tells her, “You did the right thing. I’m proud of you both.” This is a film one comes away with a huge lump in the throat, and with an awareness that some of the issues of 1943 are just as relevant 63 years later when our own nation is engaged in a war questioned by a minority, and whom are too often labeled unpatriotic by the majority.
1) The film raises the important issue of the allegiance toward one’s country and one’s beliefs or faith. In the 19th century an American officer gave the toast, “My country, may she always be right. But right or wrong, my country!” What do you think of this?
2) How have most Christians through the centuries identified their country with God and their faith? What about Jesus’ words “Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? What if Caesar, as Sophie and Hans saw it, demanded the things that are God’s?
3) We can easily see the situation in 1943 Germany, but what about in our time? Do you believe that the songs of the Dixie Chicks deserved to be banned because one of them criticized the U.S. President and the invasion of Iraq? What about the similar controversy during the Vietnam War, when many pasted on their bumpers “America: Love It or Leave It!”?
4) How can a protestor deal with the charge made against the Scholls, and reiterated today, that their actions undermine the morale of the troops at the front?
5) Sophie, managing to win the sympathy of her Nazi interrogator because he has a son about her age, refuses to accept the way out of her dilemma that he proposes. What do you think of her decision? What might you have done? What do you think of Christoph Probst’s (Florian Stetter) pleading for his life? How do brother and sister show what they are made of by their attitude toward him?
6) How do you think Sophie’s faith informs her decisions and sustains her during her ordeal? How is her Communist companion Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf), member of a group Germans have been taught to despise, a gift from God to her?
7) How does the epilogue lift Sophie and Hans’ acts above that of tragedy when it informs us that one of the leaflets was smuggled out of the country?