By David Hudson
December 25, 2005 - 9:43 AM PST
In the days leading up to this weekend's premiere of Sophie Scholl, Julia Jentsch's face was all over town - magazine covers, longish profiles in all the papers and, of course, on posters for the film. She'll turn just 27 later this week, but she's already made quite a name for herself on stage; a few years ago, she started slipping into TV roles, and then came the breakthrough in Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators), which, last summer, became the first German-language film to screen at Cannes in years and went on to become a relative hit when released domestically.
If both she and the film were American, critics would be talking about a well-calculated run for an Oscar. It's the sort of film that appears equipped with a ready-built shield against overly cynical criticism. Here's why: Sophie Scholl, her brother, Hans, and a handful of other students at the university in Munich formed a resistance group that wrote, printed up and distributed leaflets arguing that Hitler's war was insane and would result in bloody defeat for Germany. In February 1943, she and Hans were caught in the act, arrested, and with Christoph Probst, put on "trial," sentenced to death and executed, all within six days.
As director Marc Rothemund put it after the screening, the first generation after the war didn't want to talk about her and the second generation made her and the group icons; example: their story was adapted as Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose) by Michael Verhoeven in 1982. In his late 30s, Rothemund feels he's now part of a third generation eager to learn more about this chapter in German history without quite so much emotional baggage.
The first problem to mention and get out of the way is the score - the thumping contemporary beats driving the scene in which Sophie and Hans scramble to get the piles of leaflets in the halls of the university just don't work. The second and more important problem is a bit more complex. Today, I saw a poster for the film; the distributor's added a note to it: Screenings for schools can be arranged. I thought, well, exactly. The heart of the film is the interrogation by the Gestapo officer Robert Mohr (Alexander Held).
There's certainly nothing wrong with a film that's mostly talk, especially when one or more lives depend on its outcome, but since nearly all of this dialogue comes straight from newly uncovered protocols, what we learn that's actually new is that so many of the arguments we've heard over and over between the voice of ruthless authority and the courageous voice of the resistance were actually being made as the conflict was originally unfolding. But: Like I say, we've heard all this. There is a dramatic arc: Faced with a mounting threat, Sophie finds it within herself to see the farce through to its inevitably tragic end. But while Rothemund may have studied the protocols relentlessly, he seems to have overlooked the countless films dealing with the Third Reich that would have alerted him to a need for a fresh telling of the story.
As for Jentsch, she remains steadfastly true to her concept of the character: collected, innocent yet hardly naive, only showing fear and vulnerability out of the eyesight of the Nazis, strong. Oddly, there is not a lot of range on display here; Held is luckier, playing a man who struggles with a broader palette of inner conflicts. Fortunately, he makes the best of it, too.
Still, as I said to a friend as the credits rolled, I'm not sure why this film was made.
Aside from the fact that Palestinians are extraordinarily rare lead characters in any film, there doesn't seem to be much of anything that sets Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) apart from anyone else in the West Bank town of Nablus. They work in a car repair shop, drink tea, listen to music; Saïd may have a thing for Suha (Lubna Azabal, seen just the other day in Changing Times), the daughter of a famous martyr who definitely has a thing for him, but Saïd seems reluctant to acknowledge any budding feelings either way.
And then we learn that Saïd and Khaled's day has come. They are to strap explosives onto their bodies, dress as settlers, go to Tel Aviv and blow themselves up. They've evidently known this day was coming all along; we (assuming we haven't already read about the advance controversy sparked by the film that would give "a human face to the suicide bombers") had no idea.
What follows are the preparations, somehow more fascinating than chilling, though, of course, there's that, too. The short pep talk from the underground leader; the final meal, consciously echoing Da Vinci's The Last Supper; the bathing; there's even a jolting moment or two of humor as Khaled bids his final angry farewells to a video camera. By this point, we've come to know these two guys pretty well. Khaled is the clown of the pair; Saïd, magnetically underplayed by Nashef, is the enigma with issues.
Like a well-planned heist, the day presses on. They know the sequence of events like clockwork; we, who don't, shudder but can't help looking on. And then, the moment the heist is botched: Saïd and Khaled are separated. The operation is called off, but Saïd is missing. Who will stop him before he either carries on alone or blows the cover of the whole network - or both? But that's only for starters. Each of the two men undergo a reexamination of their motives, their lives, and along the way, though director Hany Abu-Assad never gives his unequivocal endorsement of their original decision, his fiery anger bleeds through: If it weren't for the Occupation, none of this would be happening - that's the argument with which no one in the world of the film disagrees, despite all the quibbling about whether or not such gruesome sacrifice and murder is indeed the only option.
Clearly, the film is not going to have an easy road from here. Even the making of it was, to put it mildly, difficult. Abu-Assad decided to shoot on 35mm rather than digital video, meaning the crew was huge and highly conspicuous. Various Israelis and Palestinians alike were deeply suspicious of the project and threw roadblocks in the team's way at every turn. Not to mention all the shooting and rocket fire that's been part of daily life on the West Bank until only the last few days. But as Abu-Assad stresses, twenty years from now, this particular swath of events will be history, which is why it was necessary to boil the story down to essential moral questions. The film's power comes from its use of cinematic rather than verbal language to pose them.
François Mitterand, the late French president, must have been one helluva talker. If Robert Mohr's interrogation of Sophie Scholl has the dusty air of a textbook about it, Mitterand's erudite courtship, in a way, of a young writer during his final days lives, breathes and enthralls. The writer actually exists: Georges-Marc Benamou was, like Antoine Moreau (Jalil Lespert) in the film, a journalist called by the President (an astounding Michel Bouquet) to help him shape his memoirs. Frustrated with what Mitterand gave him, or rather, didn't give him to work with, the resulting book, on which Robert Guédiguian's Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars (The Late Mitterand) is based, is a willfully semi-fictional account.
The thing is, by this point in his life and presidency, Mitterand knew he was dying. He could forge his way through to the end of his last term, but the question of what the man who kept the European dream of humane socialism alive through fallout of inhumane communism's collapse and a period of burgeoning hypercapitalist globalization had done during the crucial years of the Vichy government during the Nazi occupation was clouding his legacy. Hence, the call to the potentially mandible young journalist. Whom he aims to win over with carefully measured doses of access and less carefully dolloped measures of charm. The degree to which Antoine will end up playing along is the ostensible dramaturgical turning point, but really, it isn't. All you want is to return to Bouquet's President (the actual name is rarely mentioned, to great effect) talking, talking as action or reaction to this or that given situation (a birthday dinner, a bath and so on) until... like the real Mitterand, the President and his film overstays their welcome. By about half an hour or so.
As for Tickets, Ermanno Olmi's segment makes for an awkward launch, but things pick up in Abbas Kiarostami's (yes, he's made a fun film!) and Ken Loach's segment is a crowd-pleasing riot.
Olmi's opening sequence for Tickets is neither here nor there, neither on the train or off. An old professor daydreams about the secretary who's arranged his train trip from somewhere in northern Europe, presumably, to Rome, and the overall effect is that of a 70s-era art-house item from an old European master who broke rules and gained a reputation a few decades before and is now striving to map out a spot for himself. In other words, there's a musty Zabriskie Point feel about it, only many, many years on, with a laptop and such to make it contemporary.
Fortunately, Kiarostami's sequence kicks in with its humorous confrontation over a mobile phone, the haggling over whose seat is whose, lingering portraits for which Kiarostami reveals an almost Fellini-esque fascination (the characters in his sequence, too, speak Italian), and a few shots, one in particular, he holds and holds and holds, though they never grow old. Fans, he said at the press conference, may find this entry disconcerting, what with its relatively fast pace and all, but he found making it an enormously instructive experience.
Loach, in his depiction of Scottish supermarket employees heading down to watch their beloved Celtics play a game, has not only unwittingly made Tickets an obvious double bill with One Day in Europe; he's also given the overall project its most winning argument for wider distribution.
Preview, Man to Man.
Rwanda, Asylum and Thumbsucker.
Provincia, Changing Times, Europe.
Sophie Scholl, Paradise, Mitterand, Tickets.Blade, Ghosts, Fateless.
Blue, Aquatic, Wayward Cloud, Charming Girl, Sun, Heart Skipped, Peacock, Accused.
The Awards and the Aftermath
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lives and writes in Berlin.
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