I’ve been meaning to post old reviews of mine ever since I started the blog this fall, but life has gotten in the way. In the spirit, though, of reflecting on the year that’s passed, I’ve decided to post ten of my favorite ’06 reviews. One a day for the last ten days of the year. And on Jan. 1st, I’ll put up my Top 10 movies of 2006.

Note: each of these reviews originially appeared in the Hyde Park Herald, a small Chicago weekly, and some refer to various Chicago theaters, but you can probably figure that out.

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In an era when almost every other film is “inspired by a true story” or “based on true events” or “loosely inspired by something we overheard last year,” it’s easy to be skeptical of a movie’s claim to historical veracity. Sophie Scholl–The Final Days, maybe mindful of that skepticism, opens with one of the more detailed disclaimers I’ve seen. “This film is based on historical facts, as yet unpublished transcripts and new interviews with witnesses.” To the movie’s credit, it shapes that material in ways that are utterly compelling without undermining its authenticity.

Sophie Scholl was a 21-year-old college student in 1943 and a member of the White Rose, a small band of students based at Munich University during World War II. The group attempted, through the secret distribution of papers and other materials, to form, inside Germany, a resistance movement to the Nazi regime. When Sophie and her brother Hans were caught laying out leaflets at the university, they were brought before the Gestapo for interrogation.

Before we get to that point, the movie ably introduces us to Sophie (Julia Jentsch), her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), and other members of the White Rose. A delightful opening scene eavesdrops on Sophie and a friend singing along to the radio, and later scenes show the group printing out news from the Eastern Front on Mimeograph machines. The film endues the Scholls’ undercover efforts at the university with all the suspense of a high-speed car chase. When the siblings are linked to the forbidden leaflets, they’re brought in for questioning.

The rest of the film focuses almost exclusively on Sophie’s legal predicament. We watch her as she tries to convince the interrogating officer that she had nothing to do with the papers, and for a while it looks like she might go free. But new evidence comes to light, and she’s forced to confess in the hopes of saving the other members of the group.

sophieschollphoto05-resized.jpgThe actual trial is relatively short, and Sophie herself is only given a few sentences. This has the effect of lending even more credence to the movie’s narrative, as a fictionalized version would’ve certainly allowed Scholl a rousing monologue. Given the film’s title, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you the court decides against her and orders her to be executed almost immediately. The film’s last act chronicles her preparations for that final moment as she writes a farewell letter, prays with the prison chaplain and sees her family one last time. The scenes are deeply moving without being manipulative.

In fact, the movie avoids any kind of sentiment by using a semi-documentary style. While director Marc Rothemund utilizes a refreshing combination of close ups, medium and long shots, he and cinematographer Martin Langer eschew any stylistic flourishes that might distract us from the story at hand. That approach still allows for some gorgeous moments: Scholl praying as the light streams in through a window, an embrace in a barren room. Editor Hans Funck uses simple but effective cuts to keep our interest, neatly side-stepping the dullness that afflicts many period pieces.

None of this would matter if Jentsch weren’t able to carry the film on her shoulders, but she gives an award-worthy performance (she won best actress prizes at both the Berlin Film Festival and the European Film Awards). Her steely verve is gripping, and she’s wonderfully convincing as a young woman whose spiritual beliefs have motivated her to make the ultimate sacrifice. And her screen presence grounds what could otherwise have been a plastic heroine. This is the second chance in as many years for Chicago audiences to catch up with this charismatic actor, who was equally good in last year’s The Edukators.

Matching her note for note is Gerald Alexander Held, as the interrogator Robert Mohr. Their battle of words forms the centerpiece of the film, first as he tries to crack her alibi. Then, when she finally confesses (“Yes, and I’m proud of it”), they spar over the Nazi regime and the morality of dissent. The debate ranges over topics like democracy vs. order, conscience vs. law, and the place of religion in society. Dry topics in the abstract but gripping in the mouths of two gifted actors. And because the dialogue is taken directly from transcripts, it doesn’t slip into cliche but instead crackles with the fire of passionate belief. The issue of dissent in a country at war is still relevant today. And given how much bad press religion has received in recent months, it’s good to be reminded that faith can also motivate people into making the best choices. The movie frames its story in such a way that we’re left wondering what we might have done in 1943.

Docu-dramas about World War II are a genre unto themselves, and Sophie Scholl–The Final Days is a strong addition. By sticking to the historical facts, it makes for a compelling and powerful story.
Sophie Scholl–The Last Days: four, out of five