Books: Cultural Amnesia — Sophie Scholl |
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About Sophie Scholl (1921–1943) there are few facts to record, because she did not live long. In Munich in 1942, Sophie’s brother Hans did his best to keep his sister out of the White Rose resistance group. Sophie, however, was very good at insisting. Apart from their father, the Scholl siblings (Geschwister is the useful German word) had few adult companions in their little group. It was a bunch of kids. Not surprisingly, there was not much resisting they could do. But to print and distribute handbills was daring enough, because there could be no doubt about the penalty if they were caught. Sophie could have been spared that penalty had she wished, but once again she insisted. The example set by the Geschwister Scholl is of high importance in Germany and beyond, because as Aryans they were protesting against the fate of the Jews purely out of common humanity. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen made a serious mistake when he left them out of his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: his thesis that the whole of the German non-Jewish population was devoted to “eliminationist” anti-Semitism was bound to look shaky if it deliberately ignored a group of young non-Jews who avowedly were not. There are several books about the White Rose. One of the best is an edition of the relevant documents by Sophie’s sister Inge, Die Weiße Rose (new enlarged edition, 1993), which contains transcripts of the handbills, records of the Nazi court, memoirs from friends and acquaintances, and, on page 32, a photo of Sophie fit to break the heart. The Nazi decision to soft-pedal the publicity about the Scholl case paid off. In her excellent book of memoirs Berliner Aufzeichnungen (Berlin Notes), Ursula von Kardoff reveals that hardly any of her bright young friends in Berlin, sceptical about the Nazis though they were, got to hear about the Scholls even a year later. Their fame was a post-war event, steadily growing until now, with, it is to be hoped, no end in sight. Could a nation that has never plumbed the same depths put so much value on such a story? In 2005 a movie about Sophie came out in Germany, called Sophie Scholl: Die Letzten Tage (The Final Days). More than a million people went to see it. Whether a Hollywood movie will ever be made for a world audience is another question.

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Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don’t dare to express it.

SHE DIDN’T STAND a chance anyway. The mere fact that the reliably fanatical Roland Freisler had been sent to preside over the court sealed her doom. But once again in her young life she was bearing witness, and to such effect that even the clinically insane Freisler was momentarily rendered speechless. When he got his breath back, he used it to remind her of his mission, which was to render her speechless permanently. Sophie Scholl was guillotined by the Nazis at Stadelheim prison in Munich on February 22, 1943, at five o’clock in the afternoon. She was twenty-one years old. In life she had been reserved with strangers but full of fun with those she loved. Without being especially pretty she had radiated a moral beauty that left even her Gestapo interrogators self-consciously shuffling their papers, for once in their benighted lives hoping that the job of killing someone might pass to someone else. If there can be any such thing as a perfect person beyond Jesus Christ and his immediate family, Sophie Scholl was it.

Sophie’s brother Hans, the leader of the little resistance group that called itself the White Rose, was already pretty much of a paragon. The Scholl family weren’t Jewish and Hans could have had a glittering career as a Nazi. He even looked the part: with a face whose measurements fitted the Aryan ideal to the millimetre, he was a page from the sketchbook of Arno Breker. Yet in spite of a standard Third Reich education, including membership in the Hitler Youth, Hans figured out for himself that the regime whose era he had been born into was an abomination. By the time he reached this dangerous conclusion, armed insurrection was out of the question. A few Wehrmacht officers were the only people with guns who didn’t think that Hitler ruled by divine right. Any effective opposition was going to have to come from them. The only means of resistance open to Hans and his like-minded fellow students was to hold secret meetings, write down their opinions and spread them surreptitiously around under the noses of innumerable snoops. There were a few adults in the White Rose, but mainly they were just a bunch of kids. They could never hope to do much more than circulate their skimpy pamphlets. Long before the end, Hans had guessed that even to do so little was bound to mean his death. He died with an unflinching fortitude that would have been exemplary if the Nazis had let anyone except his executioners watch. Plans by the Munich party office to have the young conspirators publicly hanged in the courtyard of their university had been scrapped on orders from Berlin, doubtless for fear that a show of courage might be catching. Philip II of Spain had once taken a similar decision when he heard from the Low Countries about heretics delivering defiant speeches from the stake. He issued orders that they should be drowned in secret. The brains in the Wilhelmstrasse were thinking along the same lines.

You would have thought to be as good as Hans Scholl was as good as you could get. He did what he did through no compulsion except an inner imperative, in the full knowledge that he would perish horribly if he were caught. Yet if moral integrity can be conceived of as a competition, Sophie left even Hans behind. Hans tried to keep her ignorant of what he was up to but when she found out she insisted on joining in. Throughout her interrogation, the Gestapo offered her a choice that they did not extend to her brother. They told her that if she recanted she would be allowed to live. She turned them down, and walked without a tremor to the blade. The chief executioner later testified that he had never seen anyone die so bravely as Sophie Scholl. Not a whimper of fear, not a sigh of regret for the beautiful life she might have led. She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was gone. Is that you? No, and it isn’t me either.

She was probably a saint. Certainly she was noble in her behaviour beyond any standard that we, in normal life, would feel bound to attain or even comfortable to encounter. Yet the world would undoubtedly be a better place if Sophie Scholl were a household name like Anne Frank, another miraculous young woman from the same period. In addition to an image of how life can be affirmed by a helpless victim, we would have an image of how life can be affirmed by someone who didn’t have to be a victim at all, but chose to be one because others were. At present, Sophie’s story is not widely known outside the country of her birth: a big light to hide under a bushel. The recent movie about her has so far not, like Downfall, resonated beyond Germany. A Hollywood movie about her life would make her world-famous, but until recently it was difficult to think of an actress who might be given the starring role. Then Natalie Portman came along. At this point I will seem to digress: but I hope to make a connection later on.

A lot of people must have sat there with their fingers frozen in the popcorn as they watched the then thirteen-year-old Natalie Portman in Leon (known as The Professional in the United States) and thought this girl isn’t just good, she’s good. Apart from the happy accident of her enchanting looks, what she emanated was something much more rare: natural moral stature. It could be said that a movie like Leon had to get its natural moral stature from somewhere. But who cared, when the man with the flak emplacement under his raincoat was taking out the sleazeballs a bunch at a time? While Leon, the taciturn French terminator weirdly resident in New York (How did he score his green card? Did he marry Andie MacDowell?), wordlessly massacred swarms of heavies, the audience, including myself, chuckled its endorsement in the dark. In those days, undimmed by the shadow of recent events, apocalyptic body counts in the streets of New York were popular film fare. Yet I can remember being disturbed by, even a bit disappointed by, the fact that little Natalie Portman was there to complicate the story—the nice way of saying she spoiled the fun. Usually I enjoy movies about loner hit men using wit, guile and lovingly maintained ordnance to wipe out creepy people who deserve to die. Value free? Tant pis. I even enjoyed the original French version of Nikita, which was just about as value free as the genre can get. In Nikita, the hit person of the title didn’t even know whether her targets deserved to be iced or not. She was just an instrument, a curvy part of her own gun. I still had a whale of a time.

I’m not even sure if movies like that are bad for me. Clearly my pleasure in them taps into the same current of fantasy by which, finding thieves in my apartment, I ensure that they do not leave alive. In reality, if I found thieves in my apartment they would probably leave with everything of value I possessed. But in my imagination I suddenly remember that old souvenir Japanese ceremonial sword stashed behind the partition between my bedroom and the en suite bathroom. Having begged for permission with a craven mien superbly feigned, I slink off to take a leak and come back as Toshiro Mifune in Sanjuro, scaring the daylights out of them before I even take a swing. What follows is a whirlwind multiplication of the strict Sharia penalty for theft. An idle reverie no doubt, yet without such fancies I would feel even more helpless about the way the world is going. Like all those young Chinese suit-wearing lower-echelon businessmen scattered through the world who dote on the omnipotence of some kick-boxing ham actor and thus brighten lives in which they are at the mercy of their own mobile telephones, we need these dreams to live, or we think we do. What was so bothersome about Natalie Portman’s mere presence in Leon was that it set another standard, one which is no dream at all. It’s a reality; the reality of uncompromising goodness; the unreal reality we find it worrying to hear about, because it would be so hard to live with. Embodying sensitive decency in a role which asked her to be mad keen about guns and to bare her tiny midriff to the ambiguous gaze of a mature imported assassin with a bad shave, she certainly made the film more interesting than it might have been, but a touch of quease was hard to wish away. What’s a girl like you doing in a joint like this?

She did it again—or at any rate she did it again for me—in Beautiful Girls, a movie I knew nothing about when I first happened to switch it on during some long plane ride. I missed the opening titles and at first didn’t realize that the perfect little dream girl was Natalie Portman again. It’s a good film. I own a video of it nowadays, and I still find it hard to watch any of it without watching it all. But there can be no doubt that her scenes stand right out of the picture. In some respects they are designed to. For one thing, they’re written that way. Everywhere else in the picture, everyone talks the standard, scabrous demotic of any movie about a gang of young American friends growing older, from Diner through The Big Chill to forever. Beautiful Girls is an especially deep reservoir for that kind of talk. I love it: it always was the quality of the slang that made me envious of America. But Natalie Portman’s character, Marty, talks another language entirely. Marty (when she tells Timothy Hutton her name, you have to be my age to think no, you’re not Marty—Ernest Borgnine is Marty) talks the mandarin dialect of a J. D. Salinger Wise Child. “I just happen to be the tallest girl in my class.” Where have we heard that proud precocity before? Of course: it’s the upper-crust young English girl in the title story of For Esme with Love and Squalor, the one who heals the war-ravaged American soldier’s soul with the benevolent rays of her crystal spirit.

Randall Jarrell had a phrase that exactly jibed with Salinger’s diagnosis of the sick place in the American dream: “a sad heart at the supermarket.” Salinger’s pot of balm for the sad heart was the elevated chatter of the pre-teen, pre-sex alpha-nymph, unearthly in her potential understanding, limited only by her lack of experience, desperate to grow up. Faced with her bewitching purity, the damaged veteran, himself too holy for this world, has only two courses of action: to accept his karma with renewed humility or to blow his brains out. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass chose the second path. Though there are cynics who think he did it from remorse after exposing his penis underwater to his angelic interlocutor, it seems far more likely that Salinger’s version of the Dalai Lama offed himself because, after meeting the incarnated Godhead, he had nowhere else to go. The bananafish wasn’t a euphemism, it was a mantra. Similarly with Marty: her upmarket vocal articulation while she mashes snow with her tiny gloves is a guarantee of her heavenly credentials. Her snowballs are pills to purge melancholy. She’s a script-conference pitch dressed up as a pixie.

After meeting Marty, the sapped, self-doubting Will (“You’ve really got to chill, Will,” trills Marty cutely) can at last face up to the life in which his dreams of being a great jazz piano player won’t come true. He’ll still be the saddest heart at the supermarket, but he’ll be a good citizen. Marty’s barely pubescent love for him, and the vision of her that he will take away, are his consolation prize, a wish fulfilment pure and simple. Or rather, not so pure and by no means simple: a bill of spiritual goods, a high-tab product marketable to every small-town dilettante who wants to convince himself that he has been sent into the world to suffer for his sensibility. But if that’s the kind of vision we need in order to be better than we are, then Natalie Portman is the girl to embody it. The thoughtfulness of her screen presence—you practically hear those little wheels turning—can raise an average part to the mental level of the heroic. In the years to come she is doubtless destined to make many serious movies look profound and many that are shallow look serious. Her function, and perhaps her fate, will be to sanctify anything they hand her. At best (at their best, because it will always be her best) she will turn a well-written role into a poetic epiphany, as in Closer. At worst she will breathe life into bathos, although not, we hope, into any more than three stipulated Star Wars prequels, of which the first, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, wasted her gift with such casual indifference that I would not see the second if I were paid. Even in that tongue-tied clunker, as she visibly struggled with the unrewarding role of Amidala, Queen of Naboo, the Bad Hair Planet, she almost managed to humanize what looked like the central character in the first all-zombie production of Turandot.

In addition to her talent, Natalie Portman has another conspicuous qualification for playing Sophie Scholl. As far as one can tell from reading her print interviews, Natalie is leading a good life—an important requirement for pretending to be a good person. She has already played Anne Frank on Broadway. Better than a career move, her taking of the role was a testament to her fundamental seriousness, and to the unflashy professionalism of the people around her. The gifted girl seems to have sensible parents: there is no Culkin factor. As a college student, she emulates Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster in her admirable determination to have a life of the mind beyond the exiguous parameters of the entertainment industry. Apart from the mad hairstylists of Naboo, no professional freaks have so far succeeded in sidetracking her very far down their sinister alley. For too many of her magazine-cover photo shoots she has been caked with makeup, but probably her parents weren’t to blame. Photographers can be persuasive. (Whatever Annie Leibovitz was thinking of when she rouged and lipsticked Natalie’s defenceless face for Vanity Fair, it reminded me of how Brooke Shields was dressed and lit by Louis Malle for Pretty Baby, his justly neglected movie about a New Orleans whorehouse.) The frozen poses are against Natalie’s nature. When she talks, you can hear her thirst for learning, as if that were her only passion. As our sad Babylon of a Western world goes, the kid is still a virgin.

Yes, if a Hollywood movie about Sophie Scholl gets made for the international market, it has to be with Natalie Portman. Myself, I kind of hope it never happens, and not because I distrust Hollywood per se. The place has come a long way since the era when it could guarantee to miss the point. In the bad old days, it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine the first preview when the cards came in negative about how Sophie’s story ends. (“We can’t snuff the muffin. It’s a reshoot, people.”) But that couldn’t happen now. At worst you would get the smoothest, most literate possible rearrangement of the recalcitrant historical facts, always in the name of pressing home the dramatic point. In reality, Sophie and the nice boy she loved—he was a fellow conspirator—never slept together. In the movie they would have to at least do a bit of heavy petting: you know, to show what she’s going to miss by this crazy choice of hers? Pity we can’t call it Sophie’s Choice, but there it is. And we can’t have her dying before the boys do, the way it actually happened. The prison officers took mercy on her and killed her first because they knew from experience that waiting was the worst part. Merciful Nazi prison officers? It’s confusing, like those Gestapo heavies who don’t even do any torturing because the kids spilled everything as soon as they were sure there was nobody still free out there that they had to protect. A lot of script points to iron out, but it can all be done with a clear conscience as long as the main point is left intact: the girl dies.

And that’s where the dream movie falls apart, because if Natalie Portman plays the role, the girl won’t die. Natalie will go on after the end of the movie with her career enhanced as a great actress, whereas Sophie Scholl’s career as an obscure yet remarkable human being really did come to an end. The Fallbeil (even its name sounds remorseless—the falling axe) hit her in the neck, and that was the end of her. Her lovely parable of a life went as far as that cold moment and no further. It’s a fault inherent in the movies that they can’t show such a thing. The performer takes over from the real person, and walks away. For just that reason, popular, star-led movies, no matter how good they are, are a bad way of teaching history, and you don’t have to be an oaf to get impatient when they try to. Most of us, when sitting in the dark at the multiplex, would rather be entertained than instructed. Instruction is for the art house. If every tent-pole movie we saw gave us the full complexity of existence, we’d be living twice. My own ration for a movie like Gods and Monsters, Lone Star or Breaking the Waves is about three a year. And it seems cruel to say so, but if Emily Watson, playing the central figure of Breaking the Waves, had been more famous, we would have found the story easier to take, and thus harder to assess at its true high worth. The same would be true if Natalie Portman were to play Sophie Scholl. Simply because it would be she saying them, her lines of dialogue would get into the common interchange of civilized speech, and eventually into literature. But part of the sad truth about Sophie Scholl is that nobody remembers a thing she said, and in her last few minutes alive she said nothing at all. If she had said something, the man who bore witness to her bravery would have remembered it.