Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Sophie Scholl's trial was stacked slightly against her.

(2005) Historical Drama (Zeitgeist) Julia Jentsch, Gerald Alexander Held, Fabian Hinrichs, Johanna Gastdorf, Andre Hennicke, Florian Stetter, Johannes Suhm, Maximillian Bruckner, Jorg Hube, Petra Kelling, Franz Staber, Lilli Jung. Directed by Marc Rothemund

When confronted by absolute evil, people of good conscience are required to act. In reality, we know that’s seldom the case and when it does happen it rarely ends well for the person who acted.

It is Nazi Germany, February 1943. In Munich, a young woman named Sophie Scholl (Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Hinrichs) are distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at the University there. They are members of an underground group called The White Rose who stood against the government and were hoping to urge the students to rise up against the Nazis.

The two are just finishing up their task when Sophie accidentally knocks a pile of the leaflets off a balcony where a janitor sees her. He turns them in to the authorities – not so much because he’s a Nazi toady but because he was irritated at having to clean up the mess.

The two are brought to the police station, where Sophie is interrogated by Robert Mohr (Held), a police inspector who while a member of the Nazi party is also a somewhat compassionate man who views Sophie as more of a misguided youth rather than as a dangerous dissenter. Most of the interrogation is a foregone conclusion; the police know that Sophie and Hans did it.

Justice, or what passes for it, works swiftly in Nazi Germany and their trial takes place within a few days. There an outspoken and shrill judge (Hennicke) tries the two Scholls as well as Christoph Probst (Stetter).Sophie is repeatedly offered chances at clemency if she gives names to the tribunal; she refuses, protecting the other members of The White Rose. The trial soon reaches its inevitable conclusion and Sophie, her brother and Probst would pay the ultimate price for their dissention.

Sophie Scholl is a national heroine in Germany, particularly in Bavaria where she lived and died. The filmmakers used actual transcripts of her interrogation and trial, recently unearthed from the former East Germany, to supply the dialogue. Survivors of the period, including members of The White Rose (few as they are; most of the organization was wiped out by the Nazis) who knew Scholl well, contributed to creating the character of Scholl for the movie.

There is an authenticity to the movie that rings true. Sophie’s interrogation contains few grand gestures, few political statements; for the most part, it’s all police procedural – where were you, why were you carrying a suitcase, are you a member of a subversive organization and so on. The very mundane nature of the interrogation makes it all the more sinister and tragic. Mohr, by all accounts a decent man who was horrified by what happened to Scholl and her co-conspirators, is persistent and certain in the justness of his cause. He can’t understand why Scholl, whom he considers privileged and spoiled, would speak out against a system that was responsible for getting him to a position he might never have obtained otherwise. Held gives a note perfect performance of the role.

Jentsch is astonishing and makes Scholl very human. She is no martyr, no Joan of Arc looking heavenward with soulful eyes (although Scholl, a devout Catholic, prayed regularly) but certain of her beliefs. She is terrified of what is to come but refuses to endanger others no matter what the cost. There is a scene near the end where she is allowed to meet with her parents one final time that is absolutely sparkling. The parents are heartbroken that their children are about to die, but justifiably proud at the same time.

Hinrichs didn’t get the acclaim that Jentsch and Held got but in his own right does a terrific job. Hans Scholl has taken a backseat in the hearts of Germans in many ways but he was as brave and suffered the same fate as his sister. He doesn’t get the kind of screen time that Jentsch gets (we see none of his interrogation) but he makes the most of his.

In an era when young people in Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin are rising up to say “no” to tyranny, the movie is particularly poignant. While perhaps the protesters in Madison face mere jail time for their demonstration, the students elsewhere are confronted by the very real possibility that they may get shot and killed.

This isn’t a movie that’s flashy or histrionic. We do not see Scholl’s execution; we only hear it against a black screen. The movie proceeds at a slow, inexorable pace that some may find off-putting but the effect is powerful nonetheless. The movie received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Oscars and while it didn’t win, it certainly was good enough to. The movie hasn’t received a good deal of attention over here but if you’re looking for a compelling drama and you’re willing to look outside the box a little, this is a perfect choice for your DVD viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known element of the war (for Americans). Outstanding performances by Jentsch, Held and Hinrichs. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie proceeds at a somewhat slow pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in chronological order to help the actors feel what Sophie and Hans Scholl felt in their ordeal.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature that contains interviews with people who knew Sophie Scholl and members of the White Rose and captures their commentary on how accurate the movie was in depicting her. It offers some amazing insights.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.2M on an unreported production budget; the film almost certainly was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Adjustment Bureau

I Sell the Dead


I Sell the Dead

There are many things out there much worse than grave robbers.

(2008) Horror Comedy (IFC) Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman, Angus Scrimm, Eileen Colgan, John Speredakos, Brenda Cooney, Heather Bullock. Directed by Glenn McQuaid

Perhaps one of the worst professions ever conceived by the ever-fevered mind of man is that of grave robber, those who steal human corpses for use by anatomists, doctors and whoever is willing to pay for them to dig one up. However, as bad as they are, there are worse things out there.

Arthur Blake (Monaghan) is a grave robber and he and his partner Willie Grimes (Fessenden, who also wrote and produced the film) are about to be executed for their crimes. While Arthur awaits his turn at the guillotine, he confesses his sins to Father Duffy (Perlman) who comes in to give the boy absolution.

Instead, Arthur tells the tale of his apprenticeship with Grimes and their slow make-over from run-of-the-mill body snatchers to those specializing in, well, special cases. Their penchant for turning up vampires, aliens and zombies runs them afoul of Cornelius Murphy (Speredakos), head of a rival gang.

Burke and Hare…I mean, Blake and Grimes are used to running afoul of people. They have a business relationship with Dr. Quint (Scrimm) to provide corpses for dissection but that doesn’t do the good doctor any good if the damn things won’t stay dead.

The movie has an off-the-scale silliness factor which actually adds to the charm. I honestly didn’t expect much from this one, which got such a limited release that most of its cast never knew it actually got one.

McQuaid, a fine cinematographer in his own right, shot this on a micro-budget mostly in the United States (substituting for Ireland, which its often mistaken for) and has a nice sense of flair for the homage. He seems to have been greatly influenced by the Hammer horror films of the 70s which is what this movie most resembles.

There are also some nice little touches, such as Scrimm, who played the Tall Man (a mortuary worker) in Phantasm, here as (wait for it) a mortuary worker. (TA-DAAAAAAAA!) It shows a deft touch not often found in horror directors these days who prefer to bludgeon the viewer with gore and effects make-up to the point where old fashioned horror movies with great premises are an endangered species.

Not if McQuaid and Fessenden have anything to do with it. Fessenden, although ostensibly a supporting player, actually steals the show in many ways. He appears to be having the best time of any in the cast, and plays his character with an air of jaded disbelief that helps move the comic timing of the movie quite nicely.

Monaghan, a genre favorite for his work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as the cult classic television show “Lost,” makes do with a part that probably could have used Ricky Gervais instead. Still, he’s got a beguiling charisma that audiences just naturally gravitate towards; he’s got a great shot at a political career if he ever decides to go that route.

Quite frankly, this is low budget and it shows in the sets as well as in the set pieces. To be fair, McQuaid wasn’t looking to reinvent the wheel here and he uses a lot of conventional genre tricks in getting his point across, relying more on practical effects than in digital ones. He also has a good script, a solid cast and a fair amount of talent of his own; there is an economy of energy here that allows the actors to underplay things a bit so it doesn’t descend into parody (a la the Scary Movie franchise) or cheesiness (the Abbott and Costello classics). From that standpoint, you have to be impressed with the talent behind the camera as it’s pretty difficult to pull off that kind of feat. Certainly I’ll be looking forward with anticipation for further projects from McQuaid.

Horror fans are going to get a kick out of this one, which shows off impressive genre chops that give props to everything from the Universal monster pictures to soft-core porn. Doesn’t sound compatible, I grant you but then that kind of imaginative genre-bending is part of why this charming and witty film works.

WHY RENT THIS: It has a certain off-beat charm that’s infectious. Monaghan is extremely likable and Fessenden is having a jolly good time with this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely suffers from a Grade Z budget with A-list aspirations. Film is disjointed and drags early on.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly ghoulish themes and images, as well as a smattering of foul language and a bit of horror violence make this suitable only for those of legal drinking age or greater.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A huge hit on the festival circuit (particularly at Slamdance where it was nominated for a cinematography award), IFC picked up the movie for a (very) brief U.S. run before sending it off for home video, on demand and eventually, cable release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes with a comic book version of the movie done in the style of the animations that appear periodically in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,050 on an unreported production budget; the movie certainly lost money here, but overseas may have made enough to at least break even, or maybe not.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

Law Abiding Citizen


Law Abiding Citizen

Gerard Butler's career is on fire.

(Overture) Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Michael Irby, Viola Davis, Regina Hall, Annie Corley, Roger Bart. Directed by F. Gary Gray

Justice is something of an abstract concept in our modern civilization, but when you get right down to it, justice is about wrongdoers paying for their wrongdoing. Most of us are well aware that justice isn’t guaranteed simply because the rights of all, even those who commit heinous crimes, must be respected. We are required to prove guilt rather than innocence, as most legal systems worked before ours. It can be tricky to prove what you know.

Engineer Clyde Shelton (Butler) has a good life, a beautiful family and a good deal of wealth. In one horrible evening, it’s all taken away from him when a pair of brutal home invaders murders his daughter, rape and murder his wife and leave him for dead. The Philadelphia police capture the two thugs who committed the crime, but the ambitious prosecutor Nick Rice (Foxx) trying the case decides to make a deal with the killer in exchange for sending his partner to death row. Shelton is outraged, but is helpless to do anything about it.

Ten years later, the convicted thug is finally getting his just desserts. The execution by lethal injection, however, goes horribly awry, leading to a particularly gruesome and agonizing end. Shortly thereafter, his partner who testified against him is kidnapped and cut into many, many pieces on camera while the horrified city watches. The killer is revealed to be Clyde who is subsequently arrested. That’s when the circus really begins.

All those who had something to do with the trial – from the defense attorney to the judge who tried the case to the assistant who worked with Nick on the case – meet a grisly fate, ostensibly at the hands of Shelton who is, incredibly, locked away securely in a prison cell at first, then a solitary confinement cell eventually. Even this doesn’t stop Clyde from exacting his revenge from prison. Does he have an accomplice, or is he the second coming of Houdini? How is he accomplishing all this mayhem from a prison cell?

Director F. Gary Gray has done some interesting movies in his time (The Italian Job and Be Cool among them) and this one is no less so. Here he takes a script that really forces us to examine the justice system and its priorities and turns it into an action thriller. The action sequences work to varying degrees, but the movie is truly at its best when Butler and Foxx are allowed to do their things. Yes, it can be said to be a direct descendent of Death Wish but it’s not a rip-off so much as it is a logical extension; the Charles Bronson character was not nearly so clever as the Gerard Butler character is here.

Foxx is a gifted actor who makes a basically unlikable character likable. Most of us will cringe when he takes the low road to get a conviction, but this is certainly not uncommon among prosecutors. He’s also a family man, and when that family is threatened he turns into a cornered grizzly, all the more dangerous.

Butler is one of the most likable screen presences going right now; that saves him quite a bit here. He has to rely on audience sympathy to keep them aboard as most of his actions are pretty sick and twisted. If there’s a problem with the character, we don’t get enough of him as a sane family man at first in order to see his descent into amoral vengeance taker by the movie’s end. Plus, often he seems to be omniscient, which makes it harder to relate to him. Keeping him human makes the character more relatable to audiences and that is better for the movie.

The support cast is mainly solid character actors who fill their roles admirably. Meaney, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame is particularly memorable as the dogged detective who assists Nick in his investigation, but McGill is solid as the DA that Foxx replaces.

This took a critical lambasting when it was released, but I really can’t say why. This is actually a good movie, not just a decent one but a good one. It kept my attention and had a few interesting twists in it; you can’t ask for much more from a suspense movie than that. While it doesn’t claim to have a fix for the justice system which will always be imperfect as long as humans are involved, it at least initiates the conversation which puts it a step up of most suspense movies to begin with.

WHY RENT THIS: This is a taut, suspenseful thriller that is surprisingly well-acted. Raises some compelling questions about the justice system.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Makes Clyde out to be nearly superhuman; a little more realism might have been more effective there.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of brutal violence, some of it rather sadistic. There is a fairly graphic rape scene, as well as a whole lot of bad language. This is definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man holding the Bible as Nick is being sworn in as the new District Attorney is the actual Mayor of Philadelphia at the time the film was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interesting featurette entitled “The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen” has a couple of legal experts debating the plausibility of the script which has to be a first for Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Cove