There’s a certain cold comfort to movies like Sophie Scholl—The Last Days, in that they give us all an out when we ponder the long legacy of civilians supporting institutional genocide. Julia Jentsch plays Scholl, a real-life German revolutionary who in 1943 distributed anti-Nazi leaflets at her Munich university, and was promptly arrested and executed. Scholl’s the kind of role model we look for after reading about the Nuremberg trials and the “just following orders” defense. “If I had lived under Nazi rule,” we tell ourselves, “I would’ve been a Sophie.”
But Sophie Scholl doesn’t make that position so easy to take. As cinema, Sophie Scholl isn’t all that exceptional: director Marc Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Brienersdorfer base the movie on the actual transcripts of Scholl’s interrogation and trial, and aside from the nail-biting dramatizations of the leaflet incident and the execution, the film is eaten up by long, static scenes of people sitting and talking. As drama though—as a thought-provoking, philosophically complex conversation-starter—Sophie Scholl succeeds thrillingly. The key is Rothemund’s emphasis on what “the rule of law” means in a state that bears a deep moral taint. In some ways, Scholl was just a headstrong college girl with the luxury of outrage, while her jailers and interrogators were civil servants with faith in the system—any system. “Just following orders” doesn’t really sum these people up. They were focusing on the minutiae of morality while their bosses were selling their souls.
Jentsch gives a nuanced performance as Sophie, showing fear, outrage, keen self-righteousness and, as Allied bombs rain on Munich, a kind of cautious hopefulness. The filmmakers rightfully treat her as a hero, and when she stands before the Nazi court, that pig-headed assembly looks overdue for its impending comeuppance. But by using the actual words spoken, Rothemund and Brienersdorfer capture a lot of the subtler truths behind this story—mainly that it took place in a Germany trying to go about its daily business even as its international business was going sour. Students were still expected to go to class, and toss around radical ideas, and they still used debating-class logic to try to explain their disillusionment. Is it so hard to believe that we’d do the same? After all, these kids didn’t build bombs; they printed leaflets. But they ended up just as dead.