M for Martyrdom

What is good made of, and how does it reveal itself? Perhaps through a dimpled half-smile, a red sweater, hair swept sideways over the brow -- the guise of a girl, just 21, who would go to her death for resisting the Nazis. Sophie Scholl, student, martyr, national cipher.

Sophie Scholl is at least the third film to dramatize the brave life and death of the young White Rose student-resistance leader, executed for printing leaflets condemning Hitler's government. “We keep making movies about her,” a German friend told me. “And I always find myself asking, ‘Would I have been on the side of good? Would I have died for my ideals?' We all wonder -- and we just don't know. Perhaps that is why we keep returning to her story…”

Marc Rothemund's harrowing Scholl offers few answers, despite its quasi-documentary adherence to source material on its heroine's life -- interviews, letters, interrogation and court testimony. The film unfolds over five short days, from before Sophie and her older brother Hans make a fateful decision to distribute political leaflets at their Munich university, until their deaths. Bracketed by these episodes of nerve-jangling tension, the bulk of the film consists of Sophie's “conversations” with her interrogator Robert Mohr (Alexander Held) -- scenes that allow us to marvel at her strength but leave us puzzling at its source.

Julia Jentsch makes an indelible Sophie -- girlish face set in nearly supernatural resolve. There are faint quavers, perhaps one cry of anguish, tears silver her lower lashes, but that is all. Sophie lies with unbelievable skill, her brain clacking away as her face betrays nothing. Finally confronted with her brother's confession, she gives up the game, but with a fierce pride that is just as disconcerting as her cool lies.

That so much of the film centers on Sophie's interrogation is at once thrilling and vexing -- under such attack, why should Sophie reveal herself to her interrogator or to us? Sophie's dignity falls around her like a mantle, and we are left to admire her steely composure, just as we strain to see past it. She obscures herself with lies at first, and then after her confession, engages in an ideological battle with Mohr, increasingly unnerved by her unshaken conviction. Here, the film loses some of its pitched momentum -- the two seem less like three-dimensional characters than representatives in a clash of civilizations: liberal intellectual idealist versus impoverished, embittered working-class foot soldier.

The film throws out hints as to Sophie's goodness -- her deep Protestant faith, her reverence for her activist father. But while Scholl attempts to humanize its subject by showing the warm-eyed girl singing to the radio and discussing her love of marmalade and Schubert, there's little exploration of the intriguing personal alchemy that created her uncompromising resistance. Although she's offered a way out by Mohr, she refuses it -- what fuels this conviction to the death?

We're familiar with the idea of ourselves as willing executioners, shielded by bureaucracy, stripping others of their humanity, quoting Shakespeare while whispering, “We are not so different, you and I.” But while complicity has been brought back home right into the center of us, why not explore the good that can emerge as well? Mohr cannot pry open Sophie's secrets -- and we can't either. Through her very evasiveness, Sophie turns our questions about her goodness back on ourselves again -- what would we have done? That we find ourselves asking this question with renewed urgency is Scholl's own infuriating, slippery triumph.

After the stern and secretive Scholl, V for Vendetta seems an even windier bag of tricks than the usual Wachowski venture, entertaining though much of it is. The Matrix directors' latest project (penned by the brothers, but directed by their Matrix accomplice James McTeigue) displays their usual trademarks: the Ubermensch obsession and the fondness for bloated conspiracy and special effects, mostly in the form of the avalanches of orotund alliterative exposition that erupt from every orifice of its avenging angel. Take that, V, you giant hose.

While it's initially gratifying to see a caricature of one's country done up in Fuhrer flavor, V loses audience goodwill to its turgid direction and to its fantastical incoherence. Set in an England that's been taken over by a homophobic God squad, and that cowers under the “culture of fear” that breeds watchful screens and curfews and the usual nasty 1984 trappings, V focuses on its titular masked anarchist, who wishes to wake his country up by … blowing up Parliament.

V is the kind of psycho, I mean, sage, who says things like, “There are no coincidences.” Naturally, his society's sickness emerges from a single source -- the film unravels to reveal a sleek and tidy conspiracy. This is gratifying but also deeply off as a portrait of totalitarian societies, which are more often characterized by their interlocking weird bureaucracies, half-truths, and quixotic and opaque decision-making processes than a coherent plan created by one cabal of evildoers.

V makes a weird swap, trading one cult of personality (an on-screen foaming chancellor) for another (V, that masked charlatan). This means freedom, I guess. V's bomb-building and knife-throwing ways are justified as the strategy of wronged-man-turned semiotician. He wants to wage war on “symbols” like Parliament and stick it to the guys who done him wrong. Thanks again to that conspiracy for tying those two strands together -- personal vendetta is political vendetta.

This Wittgenstein warrior shares the spotlight with a bewildered Natalie Portman, who throws off her ingénue in one scene to have a howler of a GI Jane moment. She's just had an epiphany of the sort that Sophie Scholl lived in her real life -- and she managed to trigger a turning point in me as well: from dishy enjoyment to cranky exasperation.

V conducts its own little autopsy into the nature of human resistance and morality. And this being a Wachowski vehicle, we walk into the lab to find that the corpse has opened itself up and is conducting a nonstop presentation on its inner workings, fueled by the funk of a thousand philosophical texts, partially digested and gassing up its gut. Sophie Scholl doesn't give us enough in our study of good, perhaps, but its dignified restraint, its portrait of the integrity of a self fiercely protected from those who seek to destroy it, and freely given to a higher good, speaks volumes more than the Wachowski's thousands upon thousands of words.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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