Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, from a screenplay by Fred Breinersdorfer, happens to be one of five Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film. I’ve seen only one of the other contenders: the very controversial Israeli film Paradise Now, centered on two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. There is reportedly agitation afoot at the Academy to disqualify Paradise Now from the competition for its alleged promotion of terror.
By contrast, Sophie Scholl is anything but contemporary or controversial in its subject: the 1943 prosecution and execution of 21-year-old Sophie Scholl, the heroine of the student-organized anti-Nazi resistance movement known as the White Rose, in the currently much-cited city of Munich. It would be a mistake, however—at least in my opinion—to underestimate the film because of the comparative belatedness of its social concerns. This is to say that I was deeply moved by it, and especially by the sustained luminosity and lucidity of Julia Jentsch as Sophie, attired in a seemingly flaming red dress and exuding accusatory moral conviction accompanied by clear-eyed candor.
There were two earlier German films about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, but neither one had access to her documented testimony, which was made available in 1990 from the East German archives only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite state. There’s not much else in the film besides the sustained interrogation and trial scenes, which take up most of the last five days of Sophie’s life. This doesn’t leave much time for visual diversions in the nearly two-hour film. Not that the filmmakers have gone out of their way to evoke the Nazi period: A few drapes festooned with swastikas suffice to establish the omnipresence of the Gestapo in German life. After all, this is the time of Stalingrad and the fading dream of German world domination. Sophie’s co-defendants are already taunting their judicial oppressors with the certainty of war-crime trials in the near future.
But there is still room for nuance and moral shading to appear. Even Sophie’s chief interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), has moments of doubt and deep respect when he confronts the steady, unflinching gaze of a young, well-born and well-educated woman, whose father was once a mayor of the city until he made some indiscreet comments about the regime. Mohr is on the verge of releasing Sophie—until the police discover more incriminating evidence in her apartment. Indeed, from the very beginning of the film, Sophie is shown as far less disturbed by the risks of distributing anti-Nazi leaflets than some of her male co-conspirators, including her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs). It is with Hans that she goes on her last mission, to drop stacks of leaflets in doorways and stairwells. Noticing a pile of leaflets at the head of a staircase, Sophie recklessly pushes them into the cavernous recesses below, thus creating the furor that leads to the arrest of both her and her brother.
Curiously, the note of frivolity in Sophie’s fatal action reappears after her execution, in the images of her youthful frolics as a carefree young woman with a zest for life and romance. Yet even Sophie is surprised by the brutal speed and bloodthirsty zeal with which she is tried and executed. The arch-villain in these proceedings is a real-life monster named Dr. Roland Freisler (André Hennicke), who does everything but belch flame as the presiding magistrate. He might easily be dismissed as a Nazi caricature—if his remarks weren’t all on the record, and his demonic demeanor well attested by surviving witnesses. One thing I never knew about capital punishment under the Nazis: Sophie is shown being guillotined!
Another surprise—perhaps as much for you as for me—is that in her last days, Sophie doesn’t emerge as some kind of secular saint, but rather as a deep believer in her mother’s Protestant Lutheran faith. Hence, when the German prison chaplain comes to give her the last rites, she explicitly beseeches him to entrust her soul to God’s mercy—this despite the agnosticism preached to her by her own beloved father from early childhood. This seeming psychological incongruity made Sophie more human and more heroic to me, as well as more worthy of the deep respect that George Bernard Shaw and Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer expressed for Saint Joan.
It would be heartwarming to conclude with the information that Dr. Freisler ended up in the dock at Nuremberg. No such luck: He died from a piece of shrapnel during an Allied air raid on Munich. But then God has always moved in mysterious ways.
Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, from his own screenplay, turns out to be a creatively designed morality fable so full of bone-crushing, blood-spattering, puck-pounding violence that I’ll never be able to look at a hockey game again without wincing. Then again, I never much got the point of this popular Canadian mating ritual in the first place. No matter. Every so often I encounter a cinematic experience that I know many of my readers may be unwilling to sample, but that at least some of them may find unexpectedly entertaining despite certain limitations in the acting and narrative.
Writer-director Kramer impressed me with his debut film, The Cooler (2003), largely because of the sexy but far from stupid romance between the Las Vegas characters played by William H. Macy and Maria Bello. In addition, Alec Baldwin appeared as a winningly pathetic villain, a casino owner of the old strong-arm school with an aversion to the impending Disneyfication of this traditional mob mecca.
There is almost no sex in Running Scared, but many more intimations of pure evil filtered through the wide eyes of two seemingly indestructible point-of-view child characters, Oleg Yugorsky (Cameron Bright) and Nicky Gazelle (Alex Neuberger). Oleg and Nicky are unusually adventurous next-door playmates from two singularly dysfunctional families. Oleg’s stepfather, Anzor (Karel Roden), is a sadistic crystal-meth addict whose entire back is festooned with a John Wayne tattoo. When he isn’t watching his hero on-screen, Anzor is slapping around his whimpering, imported Russian-prostitute wife, Mila (Ivana Milicevic), and—less often—his cheeky stepson. Nicky’s father, Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), works for the Italian Mafia, with ties to both the Russian mob that employs Anzor and to the crooked local police, who get payoffs from both criminal syndicates. (The sociology of this New Jersey locale doesn’t bear very close scrutiny.) Unlike Mila, Joey’s wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) doesn’t whimper at all; she flat-out yells at Joey to get out of the rackets before he gets himself killed. Another family member is Joey’s doddering “Pops,” who, we learn much later, was once an abusive father until Joey permanently impaired his mental faculties with a baseball bat.
The picture actually begins with a roomful of Joey’s mob cronies playing a noisy game of poker, when a group of masked gunmen breaks in to rob them. One thing leads to another, and the room is soon strewn with corpses. When the smoke clears, the corpses are searched and police badges are discovered. Joey is assigned the task of hiding one of the murder weapons where the police can’t find it. So he takes it home and hides it in the cellar, where the mischievously hidden Nicky and Oleg observe him in the act. Oleg later sneaks back in alone and steals the gun.
Then, while Joey and his family are having dinner, Oleg fires two shots at his abusive stepfather. Hearing the shots and then discovering that the gun is missing, Joey drives into the night with Nicky to find Oleg, despite his wife’s angry protests. From that point on, Oleg becomes the protagonist of a series of vignettes in which a shifting parade of evil denizens of the night come into menacing contact with him. It’s a howl, really.
Children will not be permitted to see this picture, and yet I can’t remember a more fearless and conscience-driven child character in a movie than Oleg. His first encounter is with a pseudo-clownish pimp with a mean streak. Seeing the pimp beating up one of his girls, Oleg draws the gun and tells him to stop. As the pimp menacingly approaches, the boy pulls the trigger on empty chambers and is abruptly at the mercy of the knife-wielding pimp, who promises to give Oleg a permanent smile to take to school with him. At that point, the first of Oleg’s surrogate parents materializes in the form of the previously abused prostitute, who bashes the pimp into unconsciousness with a club. The two scurry into the night. After they separate, Oleg finds himself in flight from the police, from Joey and Nick, and much later from the recovered pimp, who is out for revenge. Oleg hides the gun in the back of a coffeehouse toilet, where it begins its own bizarre odyssey in the hands of one shady character after another.
In one of his many flights from a pursuer, Oleg crawls into the back of a van and discovers that he has become the prisoner, along with two frightened little girls, of a soft-spoken husband-and-wife team of homicidal pedophiles in the business of making child pornography for profit. Here, the inventive set design takes over with a room full of child-like motifs in which the children are induced to “perform” with each other in front of a garishly disguised camera.
Cannily, Oleg asks to go to the bathroom—and once he is alone, he calls Teresa to tell her of his predicament, though he doesn’t know where he is. She instructs him to check the pill bottles in the medicine cabinet and get the address from there. As Oleg struggles to lift himself up to the height of the cabinet—and as the pedophiles start banging on the door—all the ingredients for a Hitchcockian moment are slowly assembled. Picking up one of Joey’s other guns left around the house, Teresa becomes Oleg’s avenging angel as she ventures out to confront the pedophile couple. She finds Oleg stuffed in a closet and nearly suffocated—and once she revives him, she discovers other horrors that impel her to shoot the couple out of a sense of moral outrage, with no thought of the possible consequences.
At this point, we find ourselves in a world governed by the pulpish presumption that the only justice comes from the barrel of a gun in the hands of a self-appointed vigilante. Eventually, Teresa and Oleg catch up with Joey and Nicky. Teresa takes Nicky home with her, and Joey goes on with Oleg in search of the incriminating murder weapon. Only now the search has become even more complicated with the intervention of a mob-connected detective named Rydell (Chazz Palminteri).
Everything builds up to a climactic Walpurgisnacht that gathers together members of the Russian mob (a few in skates, decked out in their full hockey-team regalia); members of Joey’s gang, the head of which seems to have become somewhat disgruntled with Joey’s nighttime activities; Oleg’s stepfather, who ends up living out John Wayne’s credo in one of the few films in which the Duke ends up dead; and Oleg himself, who stays at the center of the action.
The end result of all these cross-mob confrontations is an orgy of nihilistic violence that is curiously exhilarating, I am almost ashamed to say. After some settling of accounts, a puck-battered and bullet-perforated Joey manages to drive Oleg home safely to his new surrogate family with Teresa and Nicky. There’s an unbelievable plot twist that provides an incredible happy ending—one that reminds me of the spatially and logically impossible ending of Mr. Kramer’s first film, The Cooler. In both instances, he mangles the narrative to make us feel good about nothing really bad happening to the characters we have grown to like. Frankly, I prefer this kind of sentimentality to the pretentious anti-sentimentality of Michael Haneke’s much-overrated Caché.