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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

Compelling foreign dramas

Germany's 'Sophie Scholl' and South Africa's 'Tsotsi' pose serious questions


A sobering contrast to the puerile and sensationalist fare that dominates our screens, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days features Julia Jentsch in the title role of the young anti-Nazi student heroine. A member of the White Rose movement at Munich University in 1943, she and her older brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) naively distribute pamphlets on campus, hoping to ignite widespread rebellion, but are captured as they try to melt into a crowd of students.

Director Marc Rothemund’s near-documentary approach has produced a powerful work, the German candidate for the best foreign film Oscar. With an absence of histrionics, he follows the last days of Sophie’s life, centering on the successive cross-examinations by the Nazi criminologist Robert Mohr (Alexander Held). At first she insists she is apolitical and explains the suitcase she was carrying as something she needed to tote laundry to and from her parents’ home in Ulm. Even after more evidence is found in her apartment, Sophie remains an attractive idealist who loves marmalade and Schubert, is engaged to be married and has every reason to look forward to a bright future. Mohr insists that she confess her complicity even though he is impressed with her and has a son roughly the same age.

When her defense collapses, Sophie insists that Germany should sue for peace, but despite the defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazis remain determined and more reluctant than ever to encounter dissent. Her formal trial is a mockery of justice, and the judge (André Hennicke) becomes hysterical with rage. Sophie never breaks down completely, but several times, when deeply shaken, she turns briefly to prayer.

Sophie is a principled but credible heroine, though naive about the probable effect of her brother’s anti-Nazi pamphlet. What is impressive is that Mr. Rothemund can make the movie so gripping without the help of conventional suspense. We may suppress our conscious knowledge, but we know what is going to happen, and yet we remain totally involved.

The foreign language Oscar winner, Tsotsi, from South Africa, is based on an early novel by Athol Fugard, known in the United States primarily as a playwright. The movie offers an uncompromising look at a Johannesburg shantytown where young men grow up depending on knives and guns for prestige. Some veteran filmgoers may remain blasé, dismissing the story of the title character’s regeneration as a replay of 1930s Hollywood gangster movies. Director Gavin Hood, however, who also wrote the screenplay, makes fine use of close-ups of the title character, a charismatic 19-year-old non-actor named Presley Chweneyagae, and avoids temptations to preach.

When we first meet Tsotsi, he is a brutal gang leader with three key followers: Boston (Mothusi Magano), who never took the exam that would have made him a teacher, Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), whom we see murdering a man on the subway, and the foolish, insecure Aap (Kenneth Nkosi). After the subway rampage, Boston voices a deep complaint about the absence of “decency.” Tsotsi, interpreting this as a personal challenge, beats him savagely before rushing out into a rainy night.

Stumbling on a carjacking opportunity in an upscale black neighborhood, he shoots the woman driver and races off in her BMW. Suddenly a wail arises from the back seat, and Tsotsi learns that he has unwittingly kidnapped a baby.

The story of an infant softening a hardened criminal is a staple of gangster movies, but director Hood and Mr. Chweneyagae manage both to exploit the humor in the situation and hint at a long-repressed innocence. Tsotsi carries the baby boy back to his shack in a shopping bag, ineptly tries to clean up the infant and even forces him to swallow a few drops of condensed milk.

Just as the situation begins to prompt memories of his own mother, Tsotsi is startled to hear the cry of another baby next door. He rushes in and finds Miriam (Terry Pheto), a single mother who is nursing her child. Using his gun as a threat, he orders her to feed “his” infant. Softened, however, by watching the young woman acting gently and unselfishly, Tsotsi plans future robberies as a way to supply the needs of both children.

Eventually, Miriam insists he must return the baby he has stolen. Mr. Hood does not tack on a sentimental solution but leaves us with an image of Tsotsi as a child, forced to take refuge at night in a drainage pipe. “Tsotsi” is not a great movie but it should challenge all but the super-sophisticated. Recognizing that Mr. Fugard’s original story was written during apartheid, our soberest reflection may be to ask to how much the situation of the poor in South Africa has changed.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film critic. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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