In the 1940s, German director Marc Rothemund’s grandmother pledged her allegiance to Hitler and to Nazi Germany. Sixty years later, in what might be seen as an act of penance, Rothemund is offering audiences the story of a German girl who took a very different path from the director’s own ancestor. And recognition has come fast: “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” a tribute to the famed anti-Nazi resistance fighter, was just nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Scholl was a member of a group of non-Jewish German college students who mounted an underground resistance movement in Munich against the Nazis, calling themselves The White Rose. The group wrote leaflets denouncing the Nazi regime, in an attempt to foment rebellion against Hitler. In February 1943, Scholl and her brother, Hans, were caught distributing pamphlets denouncing the Nazis; after an interrogation and show trial, the Scholls and a fellow White Rose member, Christoph Probst, were executed by guillotine.
Rothemund’s film depicts the siblings’ final act of resistance, and then follows Sophie Scholl into the interrogation room, where she was offered the chance to recant to save her life, and turned it down.
“I’d do the same again,” she tells her interrogator in the film, as she did in real life. “You have the wrong world idea, not me.”
Rothemund, who won the Bavarian Film Prize for best young director in 1998, said he decided to devote his latest film to Scholl after reading the original transcripts of her interrogation by the Gestapo, which were hidden in East German archives after World War II.
Over the course of a year-and-a-half, Rothemund researched nearly every fact of Scholl’s final days. He tracked down the son of her Gestapo interrogator by cold-calling thousands of people who had the same last name in German phone books. He conducted dozens of interviews with eyewitnesses and found a letter written by Scholl’s cellmate to her parents, describing her last days. He ordered Julia Jentsch, the actress portraying Sophie Scholl, to practice Scholl’s handwriting for six weeks so that her prison letters would look authentic, and he spent three weeks researching weather reports from 1943 to ensure that the weather outside the character’s cell window would be historically accurate.
“I was motivated because I am a director in the last generation who will be able to ask eyewitnesses about that time,” Rothemund said in an interview with the Forward. “In five to 10 years, they will all be gone — both the murderers and the survivors.”
But Rothemund’s motivations for undertaking this movie were personal as well as historical.
“My grandmother was a Nazi,” the director said, point-blank. An athlete, Rothemund’s grandmother was recruited for the 1940 Olympics (which were never held). “She had a great life, and she was guilty for not wanting to know where the money to train her came from, for ignoring what was going on. She was very typical of the majority of German society.
“After the end of the war, she had a bad conscience and refused to answer any questions about what she had done then and why,” said Rothemund, who was born in 1968. “My father was full of fear that something like that could ever happen again, and he decided to educate me in everything opposite to the Nazis; we were very liberal, very empathetic.”
Rothemund said he was surprised by the film’s Oscar nomination. While the film is the fourth German film with Nazi-era content to be nominated for the prize, Rothemund points out that his is “not a Nazi movie” –– like, for instance, “Downfall,” another Academy Award-nominated German film about the Nazi leader.
“I’m relieved and so proud that the opposite German character was nominated,” Rothemund said. “How could it be, if Hitler was nominated and Sophie Scholl wasn’t? It would be so disappointing if everyone would rather hear a story about Hitler than The White Rose.”
“It’s so important to learn that there were some people who resisted,” he added. “Imagine, if there were no people who resisted. How could you live with it?”
And what would Rothemund’s grandmother have thought of the film? “I think that she would have been proud of me,” he said, “but I think because of her conscience, she still wouldn’t talk about her own guilt about following Hitler.”
Jordana Horn Marinoff is a lawyer and writer living outside Philadelphia. She is at work on her first novel.
This story "German Director Performs Penance Through Film" was written by Jordana Horn.