The Manhattan JCC has a reputation for being one of the noisier venues for film screenings in the city. Each new film screened there is received by an audience of largely infrequent moviegoers who don’t think twice about shouting out cheers or jeers, letting their cell-phones chirp ad infinitum or shuffling out of their seats during the first reel for greener pastures. But January’s standing-room-only advance screening of Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage was something different; it made a quiet, captive audience of everyone in attendance.
Scripted largely from unsealed Nazi records, the film tells the story of Sophia Magdalena Scholl, a 21-year old student activist arrested in February 1943, only days after Germany’s bloody defeat on the Eastern front. Amid fears that she may be linked to a serious resistance movement, Sophie is placed in the custody of a seasoned interrogator who leads her through a maze of pressurized questions, each of which could sink her life if answered incorrectly. Quiet and understated, with bursts of outrageous anger, Sophie Scholl is a powerful film that locks us into the point of view of the accused and never relents. As with Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, the shifting contours of the heroine’s face fill every silence, telling us more about her emotional turmoil than words can say.
Cinematical recently spoke with Julia Jentsch from Germany, where she is performing six nights a week in Munich in Münchner Kammerspiele and in Hamburg in Bitterer Honig, about the challenges of taking on Germany’s dark history, the dangerous power of free expression, and Sophie Scholl’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Ryan: There's a pivotal moment early in this film when Sophie is finishing distributing her flyers at the university and she tosses a remaining stack of them over the side of the balcony railing, drawing attention to herself. She could have left well enough alone and just melted back into the crowd - why do you think she took that rash, defiant action?
JJ: When you're doing something that is dangerous - you want to do it, but you're a bit frightened - there is adrenaline in your blood. There's a moment when she hears the school bells ring and she thinks 'Now nothing can happen to us anymore. I will push this down because then they will be distributed all over and everyone will read it.' It's a moment of maybe being too sure of what you're doing. When you feel you're doing something right, you feel that no one can hurt you. You feel so powerful and energetic in that moment. And you do it. After she does it, you say, 'My God, why did she do this?' You could also ask why they had almost left the university building, but then they returned. This is how it was. This is what they later said, and what was researched. But you just say to yourself 'Oh my god, why didn't they just go out? Then they would have been free. They couldn't have been captured.' But youth and energy, I think, is what made them do it.