Wednesday, December 20, 2006

DVD Review of SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS

This may be the most shocking historical drama that has ever been produced. You wouldn't believe what they did to make Sophie Scholl: The Final Days as authentic as it could possibly be. More on why that is in just a little bit...

Three months ago, I posted on this blog a review of the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Ever since I heard about this movie earlier this year (it's actually a German-produced film originally titled Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage) I had been looking for any chance at all to watch it. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is the story of Sophie Scholl, a 21-year old university student in Munich, Germany in 1943. At the height of the Nazi regime, Sophie, her brother Hans, their friend Christoph Probst, and a few other conspirators produced "The White Rose" pamphlets: a series of six leaflets condemning Nazism and calling for an end to the war. On February 18 1943, Sophie and Hans were arrested after being caught disseminating the pamphlets at the University of Munich. Shortly thereafter Christoph was taken into custody. The three were given a "show trial" a few days later and a few hours after that on February 21st, the three friends were guillotined.

In the decades since World War II, the members of the White Rose have become a symbol of courage and resistance to the young people of Germany and others throughout the world. Especially Sophie Scholl, who is seen by many to not only be a hero, but a Christian martyr who laid down her life for her beliefs.

The story of the White Rose has haunted and fascinated me ever since I first read about them when I was working on my history degree. There have been other movies about the White Rose produced over the years. But when I heard that Sophie Scholl: The Final Days was not only focusing on Sophie and her Christian faith, but also that it was using recently-uncovered official documents from the arrests and trial of the White Rose members, I became hellbent on seeing it one way or another. Alas, no theater around here ever showed it. But someone heard about my plight and arranged for a bootleg DVD to be sent to me. I finally got to watch Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and you can read my initial thoughts here. But it was a less-than-stellar version of the film in terms of image quality... to say nothing of how mangled the English subtitling was (I'm still laughing at how the three friends were on trial for "sabotaging nuclear power plants" in 1943 Germany). I told Lisa in September that I wanted her to watch this movie, but only after we had the official DVD release.

Well, the week before last a package from Amazon.com came and among other things, there was the DVD of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Lisa and I watched it together Sunday night before last. She had never heard of the White Rose or Sophie Scholl before then. The movie haunted her: "It's been stuck in my head" she told me a few days later. Seeing it again was no less powerful for me either: this is an excellent DVD and the transfer is incredibly beautiful, even being a standard-def DVD playing on a high-definition set.Side 1 is the actual movie, presented in 16:9 aspect ratio. You have the option of watching it with or without English subtitles (since neither one of us speak German, we thought it a good idea to turn subtitles on :-) Here you see Julia Jentsch in the role of Sophie Scholl, as she's on trial. This is the scene that pits the two real powerhouse performances of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days against each other: Jentsch as Sophie, and André Hennicke as presiding judge Roland Freisler... also known as "the Blood Judge". Every word of the exchange between Freisler and the three defendants is taken from the actual trial transcripts that just came to see the light of day in the past few years: nothing you see in this scene was made up. The scenes of Sophie sharing her prison cell with Else Gebel (played by Johanna Gastdorf) were taken from recollections given by Gebel after the war. So too were the interrogations of Sophie by Gestapo agent Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held) based on the actual notes of the debriefing sessions. In fact, I would say it's safe to say that of all the movies I've ever seen about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days may be the one that went to the most painstaking lengths to be as accurate as possible to what really happened.

Side 2 of the disc is the extra features, and if you are a history buff then you will be absolutely stunned at the material that's been brought together for this added content. "The Making of Sophie Scholl" is an hour-long documentary about the movie's production, covering various aspects and scenes and how the producers labored to make the film as close to historical fact as it could possibly be. There are thirteen deleted scenes on the Sophie Scholl: The Final Days DVD, which is considerably more than how many are on the DVDs of most American movies. Several of these scenes are extended sequences during the trial, showing a lot more of the time when Hans, Christoph and Sophie were on the stand before Freisler. There is also quite a lot more of Hans and Sophie's parents as they tried to get into the trial to protest for their children's lives. And then there is the historical material: interviews with Mohr's son, Hans and Sophie's sister, and one with Sophie's cell-mate Else Gebel herself. The really scary material is actual footage - with sound - of a trial being presided over by "Blood Judge" Roland Freisler. This may be the first DVD I've ever owned that had the voice of absolute evil recorded on it.

But there's one other thing that I am compelled to talk about regarding Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The thing that chilled me to the bone when I realized what it was that they were actually saying...

For almost ten years I've read and studied everything that I possibly could about the White Rose. I'm pretty sure that I've seen almost every photograph related to the conspirators and their eventual capture and executions. After their trial Hans, Sophie and Christoph were taken to Munich-Stadelheim Prison and a few hours later they were executed on the fallbeil (the German version of the guillotine: it featured a much heavier blade that made up for the shorter distance that it fell as opposed to the traditional French version). I've seen photographs of the execution room at Munich-Stadelheim, which showed the guillotine and the rod hanging from the ceiling from which some victims were hanged (their deaths being caught on motion picture cameras so that Hitler could later watch the footage of them squirming in agony).

Take a look at this shot from toward the end of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days:The man standing next to the guillotine is meant to be Johann Reichhart, who carried out more than 3,000 executions during his long career. Toward the right is the ceiling rod using in hangings. And then there is the guillotine itself, dominating the shot.

When I first saw this I was absolutely shocked, because I thought to myself "Dear Lord... that looks EXACTLY like the real guillotine that was at Munich-Stadelheim".

Well, it turns out that there is a reason why the guillotine in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days looks so much like the guillotine that was actually used at Munich-Stadelheim...

...Because it IS the guillotine that was actually used at Munich-Stadelheim!

This comes out during the entire section devoted to the guillotine that is in the making-of documentary on Side 2. At one point Julia Jentsch comments about how this is the same bucket she is looking into when she's on the guillotine that was the last thing that the real Sophie Scholl saw before she was killed. Jentsch talks about how overwhelming an experience it was to be in that machine, knowing this is the very one that beheaded Sophie and Hans and Christoph and hundreds more when it was in use. So when you see this scene right at the end......bear in mind that this is where the REAL Sophie Scholl's head was before the blade fell.

Even if I had never known that, I would still be in awe at this movie: at the powerful story of courage and bold faith that it depicts and to the lengths that the filmmakers went to in making it as honest to what really happened as could possibly be expected from a movie. I said this in my original review: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a movie that should be seen by high school history classes and church youth groups everywhere. There is so much to be conveyed from this wonderful film to people, and especially to young people. Teachers should definitely consider getting this for class viewing and discussion. It may not be available at your local Best Buy or Circuit City, but Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a DVD wonderful enough to be well worth tracking down either on Amazon or elsewhere. I cannot begin to describe how much I would suggest this DVD to others. Highly recommended!

28 comments:

Jennifer Olwin said...

I have got to see this movie... it looks incredible, especially as it seems thoroughly set apart from modern apathy. Excellent review!

Anonymous said...

The fallbeil in the film was borrowed from Vienna's Kriminalmuseum and almost certainly is not the one from Munich-Stadelheim used to behead Sophie Scholl. This is a good promotional story but poor history. Vienna's Landesgericht (prison) got its fallbeil in 1938 and it was used throughout the war, eventually winding up in the museum.

Anonymous said...

i love this movie! i had no idea about the facts though!

J. Gilloteaux said...

Very powerful film as tool for education against totalitarism and lack of justice in this case. It is also a great exemple of resistance against oppression and so-called justice enforced to remove respect of human dignity by suppressing human conscience and democracy that includes God.

Anonymous said...

There appear to be two distinct guillotine models used in Germany during Hitler's reign. The one used in the movie has a simple bench and a bucket to catch the severed head and blood. The other type has a pivoting board (bascule) to which the condemned is strapped before being swung to the horizontal position. There is no bucket, only a tarred cloth shroud is provided. This model is also equipped with a leather chin strap to hold the head in position during cutting. A large cable pulley is mounted on the upper cross brace. There is also a metal spout below the lunette to drain the blood. The blade release mechanisms appear very similar on both models. German guillotine is about 8 ft tall, compared to 14 ft for a late model Berger French guillotine. The blade is 1/4 inch solid steel and is attached to a metal slide for a combined weight of about 180 lbs, compared to about 90 lbs for the blade and ram on a French guillotine. The fall distance is roughly half of a French type guillotine (about 9 ft for that one). Because of less fall distance , the blade speed is less, which can possibly cause more pain to the condemned during cutting.

Johann Reichhart, who executed the Scholls, is credited with the largest number of executions for any modern executioner in existence (over 3000 in his lifetime). Nazis guillotines more people than French during the French revolution.

Anonymous said...

The resemblance between the actor and the real John Reichhart is not that great. Here is a picture of Johann Reichhart with a different type of guillotine. He is the man on the left.

http://www.boisejustice.com/History/Reichart_Fallbeil.JPG

Anonymous said...

Correction for the link:

http://www.boisdejustice.com/History/Reichhart_Fallbeil.JPG

Anonymous said...

According to several sources, the fallbeil used to decapitate some members of the White Rose in the Munich Stadelhiem prison was thrown in the local river when Allies were getting dangerously close towards the end of the war.

José Lucas said...

I understand that's not important which fallbeill was used to make the film. The important is that this movie is a lesson to all of us about bravery and courage and alert us for the nazi uprising attempts nowadays in Europe. It is considerable better to put them away once for all.
José Lucas
Portugal

Solowka said...

This was a fantastic film, the ending in particular was haunting, i still get goosebumps when i think about that guillotine.

Its one to watch over and over again

Anonymous said...

Lets have a pun/"heads up" on this blog:

Rick Brown
Rantoul, IL

PS Don't lose your head/ha!

Chris said...

Hello,
I teach this film with 9th grade English students. Here is a link for a great study guide. I do not use more than a tenth of it, but it is all very good.
My students have seen "Swing Kids" in history a few weeks earlier, so they are familar with the concept of student resistance to the Nazis.
Chris,

UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, TWIN CITIES CAMPUS
SOPHIE SCHOLL AND THE WHITE
ROSE: A CASE STUDY IN DISSENT in
NAZI GERMANY
CURRICULUM GUIDE for the film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, authored June, 2006 by
Vicky Knickerbocker and edited by Dr. Stephen Feinstein


http://www.chgs.umn.edu/educational/pdf/sophieScholl.pdf

Anonymous said...

The actual execution took place in a one story separate unmarked execution building inside the Stadelheim prison. After the War the building was converted into a vocational auto repair shop and it was demolished in the early 1960's. So unfortunately, the actual execution room where Sophie was beheaded no longer exists. Also, it is not clear what happened to the actual guillotine used, which was most likely the old 1854 model, somewhat stouter and different from the one used in the movie.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say it but the comment about the speed of the blade is not correct as the weight of the blade is double that of the french Guillotine the travel does not have to be the same because gravity accelerates the blade on its course.

Therefore the pain is the same based irrespective of the difference in length of travel because of the weight differences of the two. This comes from Newtons laws of gravity (and further expanded by Galileo).

Anonymous said...

Er, didn't Galileo come BEFORE Newton . . .? Following this, how sure can we be of the veracity of all your previous corrections and observations . . .?
MSW

Anonymous said...

If you know enough about physics to accuse this person of mixing up which scientist came first, you should be familiar enough with their discoveries to know the previous corrections and observations about weight, height and velocity are entirely correct.

Anonymous said...

Because of the shorter drop (about half of that of the French guillotine) the velocity of the German guillotine blade is only about 2/3 of that of the French guillotine, or about 4m/s vs 6 m/s. This can be calculated by using simple physics. As for the thickness of the German blade, it was 3/4 inch thick and massive, vs 1/4 inch thick blade on the French guillotine. As to the perceived pain, only the beheaded person would know.

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Phil said...

This movie will move you greatly. What a tragic waste of a great woman's life.

Zebra said...

I picked up this movie from the library, yesterday. What courage these young people had! We are so fearless when we are young.....age makes us so much more cautious. I'm glad Sophie and her brother are remembered......and my heart goes out to their parents. How they too, suffered, losing two of their children in a matter of minutes.

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Rob J said...

A marvellous film which should be watched alongside "Downfall".

Edmund Burke once said "For evil to triumph, it is necessary for good men to do nothing".

The White Rose Movement stood up to the evils of Nazism and although they paid very heavily for their brave stance,history has vindicated them.

Interesting to note the Chief Prosecutor in the trial of Sophie and her colleagues was killed in a bombing raid by the Allies within a year of their executions.

Ye shall reap what ye have sown....

Anonymous said...

When I saw the picture of the guilliotine I stopped breathing in fright, when I read that it was the very same that actually killed her I ran around my house in silent hysterics for 10 minutes.

Anonymous said...

This movie is a Must-See for all those with a strong sense of right and wrong. It challenges us to take stock of our own courage and the depth of our own commitment and.
This movie is NOT entertainment. Quite the contrary, it is hard-hitting reality that will keep you in an iron grip from beginning to end. After the final scene I sat riveted to my seat for several minutes to let it all sink in, then reached for the Kleenex.

Anonymous said...

Bonjour,
Je suis Français et je voudrais qu'on enseigne beaucoup plus l'histoire de Sophie SCHOLL dans nos lycées et autres universités.

Anonymous said...

The author of the article mentions having seen photographs of the Stadelheim prison execution room with a hanging beam. I believe what he saw was the Plotzensee prison execution room where the Hitler plot conspirators were hanged. There are no photos of the Stadelheim prison execution room anywhere on the web, with the exception of one interior shot of a vocational shop this room was converted into in the late 1950's.

Anonymous said...

The actual guillotine that killed the Scholls and Christoph Probst is most likely this machine. It is a taller, older version designed by Johann Mannhardt in 1850s. In this photo the man standing next to the release lever is Johann Reichhardt's uncle, from whom Johann Reichhardt inherited the executioner's trade. It is quite likely that this guillotine was eventually installed in Stadelheim prison execution building.

http://boisdejustice.com/Germany/FranzReichhart.JPG

Anonymous said...

The actual guillotine used to execute the Scholls has recently been found in a museum basement in Germany. This is it - the real one. It is an old guillotine built around 1854 by the firm Mannhardt in Germany and used for many years to execute people prior to being installed in Stadelheim prison.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2538178/Found-guillotine-used-kill-Hitlers-enemies-But-device-executed-heroine-21-show.html