Saturday, April 28, 2007

White Roses

Back when I was still teaching German, one of the staple tools used in introducing a discussion of Holocaust resistance was Michael Verhoeven's movie Die Wei├če Rose. It is a movie I have seen dozens of times, but that doesn't make the story of the Scholl siblings and their friends in the resistance any less moving or inspirational. So, when it came to suggesting a film as part of a series of Holocaust remembrance activities, Verhoeven's 1982 film about the White Rose resistance group immediately came to mind. It is one of those films I always enjoyed discussing with college students, because it focuses on a group of people about their age, who stood up to fight against injustice. When I was younger, the thing that always made the Scholls more relatable than than someone like Gandhi, who always seemed a venerable, but lofty ideal of engagement in the work of justice and compassion, was that they were just students, people like me.

So, it was with great disappointment that I was unable to locate a US region compatible DVD to share for the movie night that had already been scheduled for this past Thursday. What I was able to locate, however, was Marc Rothemund's newer movie Sophie Scholl: Die Letzten Tage, which retells the story of the White Rose from the perspective of Sophie Scholl's last days on earth. The thing about this movie that is interesting is that its director had access to court transcripts and historical information that have come available since the reunification, adding another layer to the Scholls' already well known story.

Because of this information, Rothemund is able to focus much more extensively on Sophie's interrogation. The detail afforded by this approach, offers a glimpse of an NSDAP comprised not of whip wielding charicatures, but rather an (in some ways more chilling) beaurocracy made up of people bent on filling their coldly administrative roles as governmental functionaries, sometimes even in the face of their own doubts. The interrogator Mohr, for example, is portrayed as having moments of sympathy for Sophie. He gives her many opportunities (in the original German, Sophie tells her cellmate that Mohr tried to build her "a golden bridge") to recant or blame her participation on her impressionable nature as a female. In the end, however, Sophie remains firm in her resolve that she knew what she was doing and would do it again, because it is the only decent course of action. Tellingly, even though Mohr is responsible for elliciting the confession that dooms another human being to death, he does not respond when she asks him if he thinks his cause will be the victorious one. This silence, of course, says as much about his faith as any detailed reply might have.

Ultimately, what makes this film interesting to me is that middle layer. We all have heard the horrors of the death trains, the concentration camps, the executions, the genocide. What is not as often discussed is the common compliance that gets to the heart of how these atrocities were made possible, how they were allowed, not only by the German citizenry but by the world. Of course, there are many social and economics factors in post-Versailles Germany that helped create the conditions under which Nazism could flourish, however the truth is that if every person who had even just misgivings about the path Germany was taking had stood up as the Scholls did, it could not have happened.

There is a lot from this page of history that applies to today. It applies to our own apathy about the world in which we live. It applies to the willingness of many of our citizens to look the other way while our administration leads us down a dubious path. It applies to abuses perpetrated in our names at Abu Graib. People like to think that large scale injustice is an unrepeatable a part of the past, that we somehow know better than "they" did then, that we're smarter, more sophisticated, that it could never happen again. We're different now, right?

This is simply not true - not in a world where the goings on in Dharfour can happen even in the wake of regret over Rwanda, not in a world where the U.S. can be years into an aggressively unnecessary war, lead by a Commander-in-Chief, who refuses to accept that there could be any other viable alternative, because he is The Decider, and what The Decider says, goes. Even much of the rhetoric is the same "if you're not for us, you're against us", "dissent offers comfort/aid to the enemy", "criticism of bad policy demoralizes the troops". When you listen closely, many of the charges brought against the Scholls in their trial are present in current political rhetoric. And that is exactly what makes the courage of a principled girl who was executed for speaking out against injustice 63 years ago so valuable to look at today.

No comments: