Friday, September 28, 2007

Life into art: Sophie Scholl

Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) stands up for her beliefs. Photo from

Last night I watched the movie Sophie Scholl - The Final Days and was very impressed. (Is it just me, or is German cinema really excellent these days? Sophie Scholl, The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin, Run Lola Run--all highly recommended.) Not only does its story of a courageous 21-year-old girl standing up to the Nazi regime force you to consider what you might have done in Sophie's place, but it is also interesting from a writing/filmmaking perspective.

I wrote a review already, but still have more to say. On the IMDB I use a more formal, impersonal tone, describe the plot, etc. Here I can forgo plot summary and discuss stuff that IMDB users would find weird or irrelevant, like the finer points of dramatic structure.

Sophie Scholl is told strictly from its heroine's perspective: we are always in the same room as Sophie and we never know more than she does. But a lesser film would've cut between the separate interrogations of Sophie and her brother Hans, who was arrested at the same time. Because the movie shows us only Sophie's POV, we get trapped alongside her in a state of suspense. As she invents an alibi, we wonder not only if her interrogator will believe her and what kind of questions he'll ask, but also what'll happen if her alibi doesn't square with Hans's. Naturally, Sophie is wondering the same things.

Few other movies hew so closely to their protagonists; the only genre I can think of where this frequently occurs is the private-eye mystery, e.g. Chinatown. That movie would not work if we knew more than Jake Gittes--if we knew everyone's true motives before he did. And Sophie Scholl - The Final Days wouldn't work if we knew, say, what case the Nazis had against Sophie before she knew it. Besides, who wants to see another movie that cuts away from the heroine to show evil Nazis searching her apartment and cackling as they find incriminating evidence? Not me!

I've seen Sophie Scholl - The Final Days called a "biopic," but it's not, not in my book. "Biopics" cover biographies--a big portion of someone's life--but, as its title suggests, Sophie Scholl takes place over just 6 days. If it's a biopic, then every movie based on an actual person's life is a biopic, and is that really the case? I'm not always fond of cradle-to-grave biopics, but often enjoy movies that cover a few days or weeks. I call this my Law of Timespans: "A movie that takes place over a short time is more likely to be good than a movie that takes place over a long time."

Maybe I feel this way because I come from theatre, a more limited medium than film (compared to a movie, a play must have fewer sets, fewer characters, lesser special effects, nothing "on location"...). And the excitement of theatre comes in finding clever ways to overcome these constraints. So I admire filmmakers who impose constraints on their movies, rather than "taking the easy way out" and making epic films that sprawl all over the place.

In fact, Sophie Scholl - The Final Days could easily be adapted for the stage. It has a small cast and the narrative advances more by dialogue than by images. The interrogation scenes, some of the longest conversations I have ever seen onscreen, form the heart of the movie. The filmmakers say they're strictly historically accurate, based on the actual transcripts of Scholl's interrogation and trial.

But these conversations are so strong, dramatically speaking, that I wonder if they were slightly altered. I do not mean to impugn the overall accuracy of the movie--I just find it hard to believe the screenwriter didn't edit and reshape the raw material. The playwright in me wants to know what he did, and how he did it!

For instance, Sophie's trial contains a thrilling example of the "Rule of Three." There are three defendants: Sophie, Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst, and the order in which they are questioned goes from weakest to strongest, from Christoph's pleas for mercy, to Hans's rational argument, to Sophie's deep fortitude. Because this structure builds to a natural climax, it is the strongest way to arrange the material. The defendants' closing statements bear this out. First, Christoph begs the court to spare his life for the sake of his three young children. Hans concurs, asking the court to punish him and Sophie but to spare Christoph. Then it is Sophie's turn. She looks at her accusers and says, with calm integrity, "Soon you will be standing where we stand now."


It's a great scene, and a great line, and I am awed by Sophie Scholl's bravery and strength. But the Rule of Three structuring works so well that I wonder if it really happened exactly like that. What if, say, Christoph was the last to make his statement? Would the filmmakers have retained an anticlimactic structure for the sake of historical accuracy...or would they have changed it to make for better drama? And which is the right choice?

P.S.: I just realized that the defendants were probably questioned in that order in real life, too, because it's alphabetical: Probst, H. Scholl, S. Scholl. Still, isn't it a lucky chance that the alphabetical order is also the most dramatically interesting one?

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