Monday, April 17, 2006

Sophie Scholl, Faded Actresses, Atonement

I've never been to Germany, except in films. Among my favorite cinematic images is Wim Wenders' Cassiel (Otto Sander) in Wings of Desire, wandering with his Homerian hero down 1980s' Berlin streets and being transported to the bombed out avenues of WWII Germany. A line from that film, spoken by a driver to whom Cassiel listens, is eerily relevant to Sophie Scholl, the true story of members of the German student anti-Hitler movement, The White Rose:

"The present-day German soul can only be conquered and governed by he who arrives at each small state (person) with the password. Fortunately, no one now has that power."
This line, more than any other ever written in a film, illustrates the psychic guilt of everyday Germans, even those who were not even born yet. The fabric of this awful realization seems instilled in German cinema, just as the horrors of Hiroshima seem to have bled into Japanese horror films.

As the film Sophie Scholl proceeded, I was reminded why I was so dissatisfied with Downfall and Max. Both films show, respectively, the last days and the early rise of Hitler. Yet, any film with Hitler as a character is inherently flawed because: 1. It's impossible to look at Hitler as mere character and 2. Is there any way one can explicate the origins of evil? At least in a way that's as mundane and as poetic as the line from Wings of Desire?

No, there isn't, but that doesn't mean that Sophie Scholl isn't worthwhile. It is demanding, more than Downfall, which felt almost voyeuristic, magnified by a sense of moral revulsion at watching Ma Goebbels murder her children. Having also watched Rainer Warner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss over the weekend, I'm struck by how not weighted Fassbinder was to Germany's history, even when he so obviously referred to it in his German trilogy (the Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss)

Fassbinder, not limiting himself to reportage of history, could play with cinematic styles and borrow from other genres, which he did with Veronika Voss by filming it in black and white. It's no accident, either, that the relationship of characters Veronika, a former actress rumored to have had an affair with Goebbels, and her paramour, Robert, remind us of Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, a point confirmed by Fassbinder scholar Tony Raynas on the commentary.

Sophie Scholl opens with the last free morning that Sophie and her brother, another member of The White Rose, will ever enjoy. It is February 18, 1943. Sophie and her brother have planned on distributing their leftover leaflets, for which they had run out of envelopes, directly on their campus. Despite our nervousness in watching this daring escapade, we are allowed a brief, counterfeit relief when the brother and sister filter among the other students in the hall.

However, a pro-Nazi janitor has seen the pair and apprehends them for the faculty to question. It's only Sophie (Julia Jensch) whose interrogation the film follows. Her interrogator is Mohl (Alexander Held), a man whose purse-mouthed expression hides an almost paternal interest in Sophie's outcome. And, so, the dialogue becomes a debate between Sophie's humanism and Mohr's authoritarian need to reeducate Sophie. At one point, he says, "You're so gifted. Why don't you think and feel like us?

Like Downfall, which has a claustrophobic narrative (because it demanded we watch helplessly), we can only note how amazing a human being was Sophie Magdalene Scholl in the face of unrelenting Nazi dogma being thrown at her as rational theory. Her initial questioning by Mohr shows her ability to keep her cool as she denies culpability, which she does until she is told that her brother has confessed. The moment in which she declares, "I did it and I'm proud of it," feels lost in the forced real-time pacing and unrelieved tension of two actors sitting in a room for long expanses of time (an open window speeds the passing of time and visualizes Sophie's longing to be elsewhere).

Sharing Sophie's story, and probably one of the last people to speak to her alive, is a fellow inmate, Else, who has been held for being Communist. Sophie first takes her to be a guard until Else reveals she is also a prisoner and has been assigned suicide watch while Sophie's interrogation proceeds. Which they do with an efficiency that makes the questioning seem a fa├žade. Within four days, Sophie, her brother and a fellow member of the White Rose are sentenced in a trial that mocks the words "People's Court." Sophie, looking at the room of Nazi insignias, tells the room, "You will soon be standing where we are now."

The line makes watch the film no easier to watch, especially for how intelligent and prescient were those words.

A side note on the music in Fassbinder's Veronika Voss: In various scenes, Fassbinder used 1950s country music. At one point, an American, a former Army man, is singing the Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons. What's so jarring about the selections is that none of the characters, save the American, would choose these records. It's almost as though Fassbinder is commenting on how not itself 1950s Germany was by playing these songs, a choice that echos Veronika's heroin addiction and adds to the sense that we are in an illusory world. Reynas, obviously not a fan of country music, comments on its use as a sign of Veronika's "incipient madness" and to show us that how "seriously awry" the state of Germany was immediately following WWII.

oh, um, shadoobie

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