Tuesday, May 16, 2006

German World War II movies

History is written by the winners, or, at least, that's a conclusion you can safely draw from Hollywood's treatment of World War II. As the last of the "good" wars, World War II has seen itself transformed from a tragedy that nearly destroyed all of Europe to a cinematic goldmine, the ideal material for an uncomplicated war movie: a good guy who is without a doubt good, a bad guy who is without a doubt bad, and a battleground that is sufficiently foreign for us not to feel too bad about seeing it reduced to rubble.

It's from these movies more than any history book that I learned to equate the German language and accent with fascist brutality and machine-efficient genocide. I watched Indiana Jones cringe and say "I hate Nazis" and I said "Damn, right," and when he said "Nazis" we both knew it meant "Germans as a whole." Even French World War II movies, which are necessarily more complicated due to the four-year period of occupation and collaboration, paint all of World War II Germany with the red, white, and black of the swastika flag.

I was, of course, aware of the fact that not all Germans were Nazis, that most weren't, but that fact didn't rest in the front of my thoughts as an emotional reality, hiding somewhere in the back as more of an intellectual abstraction. The idea that a non-Nazi could still be pro-German was an even more foreign of an idea. The reason why, I realized, was that, before last night, I had never seen a German World War II movie. I had seen movies about the aftermath - like Germany Year Zero and The Murderers Are Among Us - but nothing that actually took place during the Nazi regime, so Sophie Scholl came as a bit of a surprise for me.

The movie itself is not overwhelming. It's a compelling and competent recounting of the final days in the life of Sophie Scholl, a real-life German university student in Munich, who was caught, tried, and put to death by the Nazis for distributing pamphlets that criticized Hitler and his war. Apart from Julia Jentsch's performance as Scholl, very little about the style and production of the film is revolutionary or remarkable; what's shocking is its content and the perspective that comes with it.

I disagree with Andrew's argument that the message of the film is bleak. While it's true that Sophie and her two partners in so-called crime are processed through the Nazi judicial system so quickly that their trial and execution could not even make enough of a splash for them to become martyrs in their own time (they are now, however, considered national heroes), the film's presentation of their deaths does not dictate that they must be in vain. I think she does get victory, in her own way.

When she's alone in her cell and the reality of her rapidly approaching death sinks in, she lets out a disturbing animal wail that overflows with self-pity and frustration. In public, however, she never drops her mysterious Mona Lisa smile, which seems to infect everyone around her, from her police interrogater Robert Mohr who falters in his Nazi dogma and offers to help her demand clemency from the court (an offer she refuses) to the audience of uniformed Nazi officers who emit a low, disquieted murmur (rather than foaming at the mouth with fascist vitriol, as the judge does) when she argues her case.

The subtitle of the film is "The Final Days," so we know going in that Sophie will die, but the film is full of moments that offer the audience hope: the music that sounds like it belongs in an action thriller, keeping the tension high and the spectator on the edge of his/her seat; the confidence with which Sophie handles herself throughout her interrogation; the side-view depiction of the interrogation room that dwarfs the desk separating Sophie and Mohr and sets them on equal footing with one another. We know, however, that she will die, so this hope that the movie offers is the hope of a silver-lining, and I think the movie delivers.

Not only does it succeed in creating a set of sympathetic Nazi-era German characters in Sophie and those who die with her, but it also offers that not all Nazis were all bad either. Robert Mohr (whose dialogue, like Sophie's, was lifted almost verbatim from the official transcripts of the interrogations) visibly softens and tries to safe Sophie's life. Anthony Lane argues that "a drooping dullness in [Mohr's] eyes confirms what we always suspected - that Mohr was dead long before he met Sophie Scholl." I'm not sure I agree with that characterization, but if he is dead in spirit, Sophie revives him - if only a little - and he finishes as not quite the bad guy that the swastika pin on his lapel would have us believe, and the same goes for the mob of Nazi officers who seem more than a little uncomfortable with the death sentence handed down.

The tragedy of Sophie Scholl's death is undeniable, but the force of her personality as a martyr is valuable, because it reveals that Nazi-era Germany wasn't defined entirely by darkness, violence, and hate, and it complicates the tradition of World War II movies, maybe making for something new.

3 Comments:

Blogger lizz said...

your point of view is interesting. i also find it a harsh judgement when during conversations about the two World Wars, people in general condemn the 'dirty Germans' or 'those bastard Nazis' as the ultimate evil, as though they were perpetually the ultimate evil. it's difficult not to have our thoughts and opinions dictated to us through the media, is it not?

June 10, 2006 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yea you are right, for lets say everyone say Hitler was the worst man in the history of mankind, while at the same time Stalin killed up to 25 million people. During the whole war,Germany under Hitler's command killed about 6 million people, which is still a really high number,but comparing to Stalin it is incomparable. However, Stalin was the winner and Hitler was the loser in the war...

November 08, 2008 1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yea you are right, for lets say everyone say Hitler was the worst man in the history of mankind, while at the same time Stalin killed up to 25 million people. During the whole war,Germany under Hitler's command killed about 6 million people, which is still a really high number,but comparing to Stalin it is incomparable. However, Stalin was the winner and Hitler was the loser in the war...

November 08, 2008 1:45 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home