As India's students speak out, it seems worth recalling a film about a student who defied another regime
Sophie Scholl was 21 when she was executed by the Nazi stateCharged with having distributed leaflets co-authored by a non-violent political resistance group called the White Rose, she was guillotined after a trial on 22 February 1943. The 2005 German film Sophie Scholl: The Last Days, directed by Marc Rothermund from a script by Fred Breinersdorfer, dramatises her interrogation, trial and execution. Though perhaps “dramatises” is not the best word for a film so deliberately spare, choosing to rely almost entirely on the historical transcripts left behind by the Gestapo (the Nazi Secret Police) and the “People's Court” -- and thus unfolding, to a great extent, within the confines of an investigator's office and a courtroom.
Calling themselves the White Rose, the student group to which Sophie belonged brought out six different leaflets between June 1942 and February 1943. Distributed mainly in Munich, with copies also appearing in Stuttgart, Cologne, Vienna, Freiburg, Chemnitz, Hamburg and Berlin, the pamphlets warned Germans that Hitler was leading them into the abyss, and called for people to speak out against Nazi terror. “Support the Resistance Movement!” they urged, for “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection of the individual citizen from the arbitrary action of criminal dictator-states”.
Those words from eight decades ago leap off the page in a month in which India has seen massive protests against a new Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA), which together with the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), introduces religion as a criterion for Indian citizenship for the first time in the history of our republic. Watching Sophie Scholl, it seems no coincidence that the resistance to the CAA and NRC, which has gone far beyond criticism of the letter of the law to a sorely-needed defence of the secular spirit of our Constitution and of our democracy itself, has been spearheaded by students.
The power of Sophie Scholl: The Last Days is in the details – especially as you watch it in 2019 India, where everything from the aesthetic remodelling of middle class fashion to the lines of 'argument' used by Fascist officials in the film are chillingly recognizable from our real-life political situation today. The junior officer of the Third Reich who hustles the film's 21-year-old student heroine into the custody of Investigator Mohr, for instance, has a moustache clearly modelled on Hitler's. Later, as Sophie (Julia Jentsch) is led into her cold prison cell, we hear in the background one of the Fuhrer's numerous speeches to the nation on the radio, his rasping voice rising to the familiar nationalist frenzy as he identifies an internal enemy. “Total war is the demand of the hour,” he proclaims, to loud clapping from his audience. “We must also put an end to the bourgeois attitude which we have also seen in this war. The danger facing us is enormous. The time has come to remove our gloves and use our fists...”.
Many of the arguments levelled by the Nazis against anyone who criticised their government are voiced in the film by Mohr and later, the infamous judge Roland Freisler. Over and over, we hear them berate these students as “parasites” and “spoiled brat[s] who foul [their] own nest[s], while others are dying on the front.” They are painted as ungrateful wretches who do not appreciate that they are only able to be students “thanks to the Fuhrer.” Time and again, too, Sophie's refusal to buckle under pressure drives Mohr off the deep end. “How dare you raise your voice!” he shouts at her, the irony of the statement clearly invisible to him. “The Fuhrer and the German people are protecting you.”
Reading a pamphlet in which Sophie's brother Hans argued that the war needed to be brought to an end and expressed his hatred for “the way we treat the Occupied Territories”, Mohr yells: “This is troop demoralisation and high treason!” The insistence on celebration of the army, and the idea that being critical of militarisation is antinational will sound familiar to anyone who has lived through the last five years of BJP rule.
Some of the film's best moments come when Rothermund focuses on the bafflement of the fascist in the face of openness: familial, but also individual. It is a fascinating fact that Scholl had been, for a time, a member of a Nazi youth group, before she and her brother and his friends began to question what the regime wanted them to believe, based on things they had witnessed on the Eastern Front as well as information they had begun to access – about institutionalised violence against Jews and disabled people, among others. Asked why her father – a known critic of the regime who had served a sentence for describing Hitler as “God's scourge to mankind” – had even let Sophie join the Nazi Girls Organisation, she replies, “Our father never influenced us politically.” “Typical for a democrat,” sneers Mohr, lighting another cigarette. “Why did you join?” Sophie's reply should resonate with all Indians who live with the promise of Acche Din: “I heard that Hitler would lead our country to greatness and prosperity and ensure that everyone had work and food and was free and happy.”
I will leave you with what to me is the film's most important exchange. Mohr insists that what he is doing is only to execute the law of the land. “What can we rely on if not the law?” he says. Sophie's answer seems simple, but it is one all of us need to hear: “On your conscience!”
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 29 Dec 2019