German director salutes resisters courage and curiosity

Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were arrested Feb. 18, 1943 for distributing anti-Hitler leaflets at a Munich university. Their stay in Gestapo custody lasted just four days before they were executed.

The Scholls belonged to the White Rose, a student resistance group committed to raising public awareness of — and igniting opposition to — the Fuhrer’s catastrophic military strategy and systemized killing of innocent civilians. Several members, Hans included, had witnessed the mass murder of women and children when they were stationed on the Eastern front.

“They knew [about] it and they wanted to know,” asserts German director Marc Rothemund, “and that’s the difference to the majority of all other Germans [who] profited from the system and didn’t want to know where the money came from, and what’s behind the politics.”

Rothemund’s tense, mesmerizing and infinitely valuable “Sophie Scholl — The Final Days” draws heavily on recently discovered transcripts of the remarkably poised 21-year-old’s interrogation and trial. Although she is a heroine in Germany, with 190 schools named after her, the film extends and clarifies her legacy for a new generation.

“Sophie Scholl — The Final Days,” which is nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film, had its U.S. premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival last fall. It opens around the Bay Area on March 3.

A tall, unshaven chap in his late 30s who favors baseball caps and jeans, Rothemund condemns the fatal lack of curiosity that prevailed in Germany at the time.

“My grandmother was a Nazi,” the fast-talking director related during a visit to San Francisco in January when “Sophie Scholl” opened the Berlin & Beyond festival. “The dream of her life was to take part in the 1940 Olympics. She had a great life, she took the money, she was training, she was saying, ‘Heil Hitler, heil Hitler.’

“And she’s guilty for not wanting to know where the money came from. And that’s a matter of the whole generation. Especially the murderers, of course, but also the majority of the millions — yes men, follow men — who didn’t want to know what was going on in the background.”

In other words, Rothemund admires Sophie for her courage in carrying forbidden leaflets and facing down a Gestapo interrogator, but more so for her simple refusal to play dumb to the extermination of the mentally handicapped, Jews and others.

Rothemund has been circling the globe for the last year showing his award-winning film, including a screening at Yad Vashem. It was there that he learned, to his shock, that a quarter of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis were children.

But he is certainly familiar with Anne Frank, and he eagerly addresses a suggestion that Sophie and Anne shared something in common, even though they were seven years apart in age.

“They loved life, they loved freedom, they loved people,” Rothemund says animatedly. “Both are full of empathy, and full of curiosity. They are free spirits, creative spirits.”

Every director who makes a period film intends to have an effect on his own time, though Rothemund is less coy about that fact than most.

“I’m born in ’68 so I’m not guilty, I don’t feel guilty, I cannot be guilty,” he declares. “But I feel really responsible that something like this will never be forgotten. Never. Because you have to learn from the past for the future.”

“Sophie Scholl — The Final Days” opens Friday, March 3 around the Bay Area.