Munich | Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Munich warrants controversy but not the controversy it got. Political columnists accused the Steven Spielberg production of morally equating Israeli Mossad agents hunting down terrorists with the terrorists themselves who deliberately target innocents. I certainly agree with this moral distinction between the real-life foes, but Munich, in fact, shows us the Mossad strike force, charged with avenging the slaying of the 1972 Olympic Israeli team, as always scrupulously careful in their tracking and killing of the murderers. Conversely, when a Palestinian terrorist expounds his mission to a man he considers sympathetic to his cause (in reality Avner, the Mossad squad leader incognito), his diatribe is a tissue of apocalyptic fantasy and fanaticism, fired by idealism to be sure, but indifferent to innocent bystanders. There is scarcely any moment in the Spielberg film when we fail to sympathize with the Israeli agents, no matter what compunctions we may have about their mission.

Yet no one friendly to Israel need feel friendly to this film. The sympathy we feel for the Mossad agents, especially for the heroic protagonist (well played by Eric Bana), is a lever that the filmmakers use to make us antipathetic to Israel itself, or at least the post-1967 Israel that so extended itself through martial conquest. The scriptwriter Tony Kushner is, I assume, the decisive voice of the movie. Co-writer Eric Roth is a skilled craftsman, but it seems to me that it is Kushner who has impressed his style and views on the subject matter. A brilliant, unabashedly political playwright (Angels in America), he is also a nostalgic Marxist who apparently longs for the early Israeli days of brave Central European socialists and folk-singing kibbutzniks. His discrediting of Israel pervades the fictional narrative he has spun out from the nonfiction book, Vengeance, by George Jonas.

Consider: Golda Meir, a virtual saint to some Americans, is portrayed here as a sly realpolitik manipulator who doesn’t even attend the funeral of the athletes for fear of being booed for not negotiating for their release. (Her excuse is that she was attending her sister’s funeral, but one of her own subordinates brushes this aside.) I have no doubt that Meir was a tough cookie but the script makes her sound like an apologist for lynching (“You tell me what laws protect people like these”) rather than a responsible leader sincerely wrestling with a moral conundrum.

It is not so startling that the Mossad spymaster who puts together the hit squad is written and acted (by Geoffrey Rush at his slimy best) as a sinister sort, but what kind of team does this espionage maestro assemble? An inexperienced youthful leader, Avner; another youth (Daniel Craig, the future James Bond), who reveals himself to be a callow hothead; two older men, emotionally stable but rather elderly for such globe-trotting adventures; and a supposedly expert bomb maker who turns out to be experienced only in bomb dismantling.

And what targets are assigned? Not the actual killers, who are in Middle East countries that Israel doesn’t want infiltrated for political reasons, but certain European residents who have been labeled as facilitators of terrorism. That several of them are sympathetically characterized (a mellow literary scholar, a diplomat surrounded by a loving family) is beside the point, for even loving fathers and dignified scholars can be terrorists, and this fact, dramatized with some care, would have brought the best kind of complexity to the movie. But when Avner, whose perceptions guide our emotional progress through the story, comes to perceive that the men he’s killed were condemned “according to evidence no one has seen,” we have to wonder if Kushner and Spielberg believe that Israel has become so entrenched in militancy that it has ceased to care about justice. In fact, after the Mossad agents have been plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the hunters have become the hunted, Avner comes to believe that it is Mossad itself that is hunting him and his comrades down, and he takes refuge with his family in New York City, the real home (Munich seems to imply) of good Jews.

And what about the scene near the movie’s conclusion in which Avner’s frigid, rejecting mother (she dropped him off at a kibbutz when he was a toddler and has remained aloof ever since) offers her son the traditional apologia for Israel’s necessity in the aftermath of the Holocaust, “A place on earth, we have a place on earth.” More than defensible words, certainly, but why are they uttered by a woman with the face of an ice queen and the voice of a robot? And why do repugnant women (first the movie’s version of Meir and later the mother) bookend the narrative?

As a critic I have enough negative capability to put aside my political differences with any writer or director in order to receive his artistic vision. But Kushner’s apparent need to show Israel’s moral abdication has undermined his instinct for drama. Throughout this nearly three-hour movie, he never gives us a protagonist who intelligently comes to grips with the problematic morality of his violent mission, but instead serves up a pathetic, discombobulated character who is such a bewildered wreck by the time the second hour is over that he can go nowhere (dramatically speaking) except further and further into paranoia and confusion. This is not dramatic. Kushner isn’t interested in character development, only in indictment, and even Spielberg’s cinematic flair-his precise editing, the infinite modulations of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography-can’t make a nagging, snarled script propulsive. If you want a drama about a Mossad agent coming to grips with morality and mortality, see the superb Israeli movie Walk on Water (reviewed May 6, 2005), or read Amos Oz’s excellent novel, To Know a Woman.

The most striking difference between Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and Munich is that the German movie, directed by Mark Rothemund and written by Fred Breinersdorfer, doesn’t strong-arm its subject matter in order to make a historical event prove exactly what the moviemakers want it to prove. Sophie Scholl breathes freely and the audience can feel that it is discovering something for itself while watching it. Rothemund and Breinersdorfer want to honor their heroine, the most famous of the White Rose resistors dedicated to the overthrow of the Nazi regime, and so they don’t load the true story with a lot of contrivances; the truth is dramatic enough. We see Sophie and her brother Hans distribute antiwar pamphlets at their Munich university and then we witness their arrest, her interrogations, the trial, and the executions by guillotine (not gruesomely staged yet shocking in their abruptness). Though the movie has been made with the finest craftsmanship, the story seems to tell itself. It is a work of anti-egoism.

I could cavil. Though the color cinematography is good, perhaps black-and-white would have made the prison/interrogation scenes chillier, more doom-laden. Perhaps Alexander Held’s generally good performance of Mohr, the Gestapo interrogator, carries a whiff of ham. And maybe the relationship between Sophie and her Communist cellmate, Else Gebel, needed more exploration.

But consider what words and wordlessness have accomplished here. Relying on the original minutes of the Gestapo interrogations, the script not only illuminates Scholl’s courage under fire but the strangely sympathetic relationship that developed between her and Mohr, who, though ruthless in nailing his prey, also tried to save her. The court scenes (also drawn from records) are fascinating in the way the German legal system, despite its perversion under Nazi rule, tried to maintain a semblance of orderliness, with the attempt rendered ludicrous by the tyranny of Judge Freisler. And the wordless imagery of the final scenes-Sophie’s eyes taking in her last glimpses of the world, the final embrace of three doomed comrades-is almost unbearably moving.

Julia Jentsch’s performance, much honored in Europe, gives this movie its heartbeat. Radiant when radiance is needed, wan and sickened under death sentence, purified and reaching for heaven at the conclusion, Jentsch understands that Scholl was not yearning for martyrdom. She produced alibi after alibi to save herself and her comrades, and when Scholl realizes that all is lost, Jentsch emits a harrowing animal cry. This urge to live but willingness to die is precisely what makes Scholl a heroine.

Whether or not Sophie Scholl makes a dime at the box office, it will have an afterlife, and I think I can predict what that will be. Religious study groups, seminars, and retreats should rent the DVD as a demonstration of the power of faith. Throughout the narrative, especially in the closing scenes, Sophie’s reliance on her faith in God is emphasized. It would be not quite accurate to say that this devout Protestant had a personal relationship with God in the way fundamentalists do. According to the film, she found God too mysterious for that. But she was willing to put her life in the service of a benevolent silence, and so despair could not grip her. Director Rothemund has no ax to grind; he is an atheist. That he is so willing to admit that the roots of Sophie’s heroism were in her faith is a mark of his veracity and the big heartedness of this movie.

Published in the 2006-03-10 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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