Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Movie Review: Sophie Scholl and József Cardinal Mindszenty: Interrorgation

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005): When She's Right, She's Right

In Munich in 1943 the members of a secret student organization called the White Rose meet in a studio to produce their sixth anti-Nazi leaflet, informing the benighted German populace about the defeat at Stalingrad and the inevitable Allied victory and calling for resistance to the fascist regime. These noble subversives stuff leaflets into envelopes for an anonymous mass mailing, but when they run out of envelopes Hans Scholl (Fabian Hinrichs) rashly announces he's going to distribute the remaining sheets at the university (where the group has also painted slogans on the walls). Another member pleads with him not to, it's too dangerous, but Hans's sister Sophie (Julia Jentsch) says she'll carry the briefcase and help him.

Hans and Sophie work fast and efficiently, laying the leaflets out in neat piles by the classroom doors. As they're about the leave, undetected, Sophie tells Hans there are more leaflets in the case, so they go back up to the top floor and set the last ones out. As the bell rings Sophie can't resist pushing one stack off a balustrade into the atrium. Before Hans and Sophie reach the bottom of the staircase, they're stopped by a patriotic janitor who saw them on the top floor and quickly taken in for interrogation by the Gestapo.

The movie follows Sophie's interrogation by Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), a ferrety zealot, and at first her well-practiced alibis seem to be working. Unfortunately, however, the Scholls are just about to be released when Mohr receives fairly unambiguous evidence taken from their apartment. When Sophie sees that Hans has signed a confession, she admits her part (claiming more responsibility than she bore in order to shield others) and begins a debate with Mohr about the despicable, murderous Third Reich.

Sophie is an impressive liar and then an impressive debater, and Jentsch is impressive as both. Mohr may not be affected by Sophie's Protestant spirituality or her German liberalism, but we are. (Trained as a children's nurse, Sophie movingly describes to him how mentally handicapped children were killed and went singing to their deaths; Mohr says that such people are unworthy to live.) Mohr does admire Sophie's courage, discipline, and industry and urges her to submit to ideological reprogramming so that he may let her live. She refuses, of course, and after a brief show trial is guillotined along with Hans and a third member of the White Rose. (She is not tortured or physically mistreated in any way; her discussions with Mohr are surprisingly civilized perversions of justice.)

The movie, directed by Marc Rothemund from a script by Fred Breinersdorfer sticks to the facts and moreover tries to keep away from movieish hype. Yes, the distribution of the leaflets and the timing of Sophie's near release are a little fakey, and Held's acting is too intent. (The way he removes the damning evidence from a satchel one item at a time is badly staged—it starts to look like a magic act.) But the moviemakers give most of the running time over to the verbal confrontations between Sophie and Mohr and that's unusual in itself. What is not so unusual is the content of their back-and-forth.

The White Rose is legendary in Germany, a cynosure of disinterested political righteousness despite personal cost, all the more heroic because the members were almost all students in their twenties. To function as a tribute to the Scholls and their comrades, the movie has to present Sophie's ideas pure. No one in the audience for this movie could possibly disagree with anything she says, and Jentsch says it better than we could imagine saying it in the circumstances. If you want to hear the sensible, humane argument against Nazism spoken with ardent fluency directly under the monster's glaring eyes, then this is the movie for you.

As a matter of drama, however, Mohr's replies don't speak to what Sophie has said. On the one hand he repeats Göbbels's slogans, and on the other he simply says that he himself is personally better off under the Third Reich than he was before. It's dramatic only because we know Sophie's head is at stake, not because the two of them are meaningfully engaged in a philosophical debate.

There is a subject here, but the movie doesn't notice it. I kept thinking that if I were the guy in the studio who had begged Hans not to distribute leaflets at the university, I would be really angry, right up to the moment I was beheaded as a result of my friend's reckless idealism. This subject may slip by us because people now valorize student movements too blindly to see their shortcomings. It's hard to believe, for instance, that seasoned activists would have thought, as Hans did, that an uprising on the part of his fellow university students was imminent. And even if it had been, what could it have accomplished in the Nazi terror state?

I respect Sophie's decision to confess defiantly and her refusal to submit to re-education. (The way she later antagonizes her appointed defense counsel, a party faithful, by contrast, seems like pointless bravura.) But her ideas themselves don't demand this self-sacrifice, as a Nazi's would. However much of a legend she now is, the war was being won by the Allied forces, with or without Sophie and Hans's efforts. It's thus possible to say that Sophie had the right to live at the cost of a compromise that was meaningless because compelled. Perhaps the duty as well as the right: surely she would have been more valuable politically alive.

The movie's depiction of Sophie is worshipful and by that same token dimensionless. These brave kids acted impulsively on their ideals and lost their lives, taking with them all their comrades and their organization as well. Sophie and Hans are martyrs and while they're heroic they're not heroes you'd be wise to emulate. They embody the adolescent faith that any political action is better than none, and the movie couldn't treat them more glowingly if their actions had been effective. Hans and Sophie's heedlessness can be excused mainly by the fact that their cause—an internal student coup against the Nazi state—was so hopeless, a political reality they were too fervent even to perceive.

The fact that the movie gives us Sophie as a legend, with a halo, means that it's less nuanced and even less intelligent a treatment of student activism than Bruce LaBruce's The Raspberry Reich, a pornographic travesty of leftist personality-cult terror cells. Sophie Scholl is certainly less fun. And yet there's a lot irony could do to open up the story of these industrious but quixotic kids who think they're going to leaflet and graffiti Hitler off his throne. The moviemakers don't even get anything out of the way both the Gestapo and the tribunal kvetch about the Scholls' ingratitude—The Reich magnanimously sent them to the wonderful university and this is how they repay it! (The enforcers of the civilian terror state nag and holler like exasperated parents.)

Instead, Rothemund and Breinersdorfer's approach is utterly earnest, and the latest example of soft-headed sentimentality about Communism, as well. The warm-hearted, maternal political prisoner put in her cell to keep Sophie from committing suicide says she and her activist brother became party members because Communists always stick together. Amusing, when Sophie is about to be condemned in a show trial as brutal but less hallucinatory than those staged by Stalin, in which committed party members were convicted of crimes they had not committed.

The Prisoner (1955): Devictus vincit

The perversion of justice in Communist countries is the subject of two movies about József Cardinal Mindszenty, the Roman Catholic Prince Primate of Hungary who was arrested by the Hungarian Communist government in 1948 because of his staunch, public opposition to the expropriation of church lands and the nationalization of church schools (and because he was a natural figurehead of the democratic Smallholders Party). Mindszenty was beaten and drugged into signing a false confession (he had the foresight to write a note repudiating any confession, even one bearing an authentic signature, in anticipation of his arrest), convicted in a show trial featuring forged documentary evidence, and sentenced to life imprisonment. During the abortive 1956 revolution, freedom fighters liberated him from prison and the new government exonerated him. The Soviet tanks arrived four days later, however, and the Cardinal sought asylum in the American Embassy. He was allowed to stay but refused to leave the country unless he was rehabilitated. He lived in the Embassy until 1971 when the Vatican finally convinced him to leave (he settled in Vienna). When the Communist government granted him a pardon, he refused it.

Peter Glenville's The Prisoner (1955), a fictionalized version of Mindszenty's interrogation and trial (made before the events of 1956, as Pauline Kael noted in her 12 December 1970 New Yorker review of Costa-Gavras's The Confession), features an unnamed Cardinal (Alec Guinness), a national hero of the anti-fascist resistance, and an unnamed Interrogator (Jack Hawkins), a (presumably former) aristocrat who brings his considerable intellectual sophistication to bear on the brutal work of getting the proud, strong-minded prelate to confess to invented crimes against the unnamed Stalinist state.

Guinness's Cardinal is as erect as a chessman, aloof, caustic, and battle-hardened. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo without breaking and does not imagine the Interrogator can do worse or get more out of him. (Mindszenty had not only been imprisoned by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party in 1944—for refusing to permit a Mass to be said in celebration of the deportation of Hungarian Jews—he had been held by the Hungarian Communist government in 1919 as well. He was a lifelong lightning rod for totalitarian despotism.) The Interrogator's experience fighting the Nazis was less harrowing than the Cardinal's, and in addition the Cardinal is confident of his moral edge—he refers to the Nazis as the Interrogator's "predecessors." (The Hungarian Communist secret police, the AVO, did, in fact, use the same HQ as the Arrow Cross party, the notorious 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, now a museum called The House of Terror.)

In a variation on Mindszenty's note, the Cardinal says as he's being arrested that any confession will be a lie or the result of human weakness. Cardinal Mindszenty was truncheoned and stupefied with drugs, but The Prisoner's choice of "human weakness" is judicious, as a dramatic rather than a historical matter. The Interrogator wants a "clean" confession that will seem uncoerced. Why he would care seems to fly in the face of Stalinist judicial history, but then Mindszenty said in his 1974 Memoirs that the physical abuse was stopped two days before his first appearance in court so that he would be physically capable of playing his part in the show trial. In any event, the Interrogator believes he can't get the Cardinal to confess by merely inflicting physical pain. The Cardinal must want to abase himself publicly, and getting him to involves not just psychological torture (sleep deprivation, etc.) but getting to know the great man intimately enough to crack his pride.

Pride turns out not to be the Cardinal's strength, after all, but his weakness. It's a cover for his shame over his beginnings as the son of a fishwife, a schoolboy who was ridiculed for the way he smelled. The Interrogator has the Cardinal's mother sedated and laid on a gurney before her son. At first the Cardinal thinks she's been killed; when he realizes she's alive the Interrogator tells him that she'll be sent to a research hospital, where she will be ill, unless he confesses. The Cardinal doesn't know that his mother has already been put in the hospital and the Interrogator doesn't suspect that the Cardinal, who grew up listening to her cavorting with lovers in the next room, doesn't love his mother. But once the Cardinal tells him so, the Interrogator immediately makes use of that. (This is peculiarly far from Mindszenty's story. He called his mother to him as soon as he realized he would be arrested in 1948 and "she declared she would go the way of the cross in the footsteps of the Mater dolorosa." He later said his mother was "the light of the sun" for him during his "semi-imprisonment" in the American Embassy.)

The Interrogator then wears the Cardinal down for a number of months with exhaustion and isolation until he's dying to talk; when they reconvene, the Interrogator gets the Cardinal to psychologize about his decision to enter the church. The priest, hysterically self-reflective at this point, loses his sense of vocation and sees his entire career as a vainglorious sham that he'd be grateful to dispense with. Sex isn't the Cardinal's weakness—this niche-carving of a prelate can't be tempted onto lower ground, only higher. The Interrogator offers him purgation by ruining his "false" reputation: the Cardinal must avow in open court, for instance, that he betrayed the resistance to the Nazis for money. That isn't the kind of fake the Cardinal now feels himself to be, but the Interrogator convinces him that it's better to be despised as the wrong kind of fake than to remain in possession of "stolen" honor.

Screenwriter Bridget Boland, adapting her own play, injects into the story the irony that the Cardinal's participation in the desecration of his reputation becomes sincere. His being broken may even be seen as a genuine religious experience, and, as the Interrogator notes, the Cardinal is a stronger man afterwards. (In his trials Mindszenty kept with him a picture of Christ crowned with thorns inscribed, Devictus vincit—Defeated, he is victorious. And in prison he thanked the Lord that He had found him worthy to share shame with his savior.)

In the Cardinal's first exchanges with his Interrogator and his Jailer, Guinness stylizes his performance with stately-slow reactions. His eyes and eyelids move heavily, as if with the weight of moral contempt, and the Cardinal seems too fastidious to be caught out by the Stalinists' coarse machinations. (He's merely amused when they challenge him with their first crudely forged documents and altered recordings; he points out the flaws with the ease of Christ among the doctors.) But Guinness keeps us aware of the morphing outlines of the Cardinal's character as the man genuinely responds to cynical manipulation and your feelings about his experience end up being much less resolved than you'd expect from an unabashedly anti-Stalinist movie.

This irony gives The Prisoner what Sophie Scholl lacks—a dramatic motif shaping the face-off between the prisoner and the totalitarian interrogator. The two men actually defeat each other. The Cardinal, a national hero thought to be unbreakable, confirms his confession in open court and is sentenced to death. There's something worse than death, however: a last-minute reprieve and release, which means that the Cardinal has to re-enter a society in which he has lost his standing, his power to do good. The Interrogator, for his part, has had to get so close to the Cardinal to find his weak spot that he actually feels compassion for the man, which puts an end to his career as a torturer.

In addition, there's the structural irony arising from the fact that it is the fanatical, impersonally ruthless Interrogator, rather than the Cardinal, who has a quest. That quest, i.e., to destroy the Cardinal before a deadline set by the military, gives the movie its suspense and a focus for our reactions. We're in the disheartening position of hoping the Interrogator will fail, though we know he won't. It's an inverted melodrama, ending with the triumph of a false accusation and the unjust public shaming of an innocent heroic figure.

Boland's is a talky, histrionic approach to a subject of enormous moment, but by focusing on the way the Cardinal and Interrogator outwit each other, the containment of the piece within an implied proscenium feels somewhat justified. And Mindszenty's trial was a staged spectacle. (Mindszenty, too, had a sense of theater: when the Arrow Cross arrested him in 1944, he dressed in his full episcopal robes and followed the police cars on foot, accompanied by sixteen theological students and their three instructors. This procession drew throngs who kneeled at the side of the road and asked for his blessing.) Boland also gives the exchanges a certain amount of wit, not all of it on the side of the mordant Cardinal. The Interrogator, too, has his high comic moments, such as when he affably says to his prisoner, "Stop thinking of me as the inquisitor," as if the two of them were equals engaged in an arbitration.

Glenville's direction is less justifiable—it's stagy without giving you the impression he'd be a great director for the stage, either. For one thing, he has a very odd sense of casting. Hawkins looks less like an aristocrat and more like a peasant than Guinness, who has the elongated refinement of El Greco's Portrait of a Cardinal. The casting is thus nearly as dylsexic as in Glenville's Becket (1964), in which fleshy Richard Burton plays the saint and airy Peter O'Toole the lusty, intemperate monarch. The actors here also have to overcome the use of the camera to capture the clever stage blocking. In the worked-up compositions their gestures become too prominent: Guinness's hands when he recalls Nazi torture or his own suicide attempt, for instance. After an interesting opening during Mass, Glenville's visual sense is too often obvious (e.g., a shot from slightly above as the Interrogator moves a chess piece from one square to another that fades to a shot from above as the Cardinal steps from one flagstone to another) and even laughable (e.g., when the camera sneaks up behind the Interrogator who is doodling a spider's web).

Wilfrid Lawson also has a juicy role as the Cardinal's Jailer, an ordinary man whose attitude regarding what goes on in the prison ("A job's a job") is repugnantly adaptable. Maybe too juicy—Lawson come across as even more deliberate than Hawkins playing the master of entrapment. Both actors stretch their syllables out, though Lawson does it in the service of a musically obscene proletarian joviality, which, if highly theatrical, is at least memorable. For his part, Hawkins does fit one's image of an upper-level apparatchik torturer and his mannered delivery gives him an "aristocratic" way with the dialogue. And Guinness's conspicuous etcher's technique—the acid is applied with a light hand but cuts deeply—seems right for a man who has attained his eminence.

Nothing holds the supremely resourceful star back. What Guinness does with his eyes alone, the way they alternately blaze and ash over, look enameled with serenity and then bug with emotional terror, provides a seminar on acting. And that's just from the neck up. When the Cardinal reaches his breaking point, Guinness sinks to his knees, desperate to be cleansed of sin. Glenville looks on from a long shot, but it registers; Guinness's embodiment of the disintegrating Cardinal is so imaginative that it works at any distance. (He throws himself into the role physically the way Laurence Olivier later did as a very North African Othello.)

Guilty of Treason (1950): Heil Hitler! Heil Stalin!

The Prisoner takes its anti-Communism for granted and doesn't go into the political situation Mindszenty was caught up in, much less the ideas that motivated him—the historical importance of Catholicism to the Hungarian nation. Surprisingly, there was a Hollywood movie about Mindszenty made shortly after his trial that is much more invested in his cause: Guilty of Treason, a cheapie produced independently by Jack Wrather and Robert Golden and released by Eagle-Lion Films.

The script is based on the book As We See Russia by members of the Overseas Press Club of America, but it also resembles the script for Hitler's Children (1943), a crude, earnest wartime propaganda piece written by the same screenwriter, Emmet Lavery. Lavery makes a similarly sensational case against the Soviet-backed Communist government in Hungary but not (entirely) out of tired reflexes. Rather, it's his main point: the Stalinists consciously use the personnel and techniques of their defeated arch-enemies, the Nazis.

As one character points out, Vilmos Olti, the president of the Budapest People's Court that tried Mindszenty, was a former Arrow Cross party man. (Olti consequently had to show a special ferocity in the case. This is the converse of the situation in Sophie Scholl, in which the head justice is a Communist seeking redemption with the Nazis.) And in Guilty of Treason the only Hungarians besides party members who support the Communists are former members of the Arrow Cross (who adapted to Stalinism presumably because any kind of totalitarianism gave scope to their taste for violent domination). Their signature is "Heil Hitler! Heil Stalin!"

Mindszenty is not at the center of Guilty of Treason, however. The fictional hero is Tom Kelly (Paul Kelly), a tough-talking journalist reporting on the descent of the Iron Curtain. In November 1948, Kelly, figuring Hungary will be the next hot spot, leaves Moscow for Budapest. (It didn't require clairvoyance to know something was up in Hungary: as Pope Pius XII is reputed to have said to Mindszenty (in one version) when he elevated him to Cardinal in 1946 along with 31 others (including Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York), "Among the 32 you will be the first to suffer the martyrdom whose symbol this red color is.")

Kelly is a hard-boiled newspaperman in the mode of a cynical Bogart tough guy, except that he starts out with the political engagement Bogart comes around to only at the end of Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have Not (1944). He knows that the Soviets have come to Hungary to terrorize the opposition into submission, and he knows that they'll want to destroy Cardinal Mindszenty. And he says as much directly to Colonel Melnikov (Richard Derr), a true-believing Soviet officer cracking down on dissent in Budapest from 60 Andrássy. (Kelly, speaking in detective-fiction vernacular, goads Melnikov by saying he wants to see the "fix," the "frame-up" of the Cardinal.) Kelly then seeks Mindszenty out to hear what he has to say, and when his acquaintances start getting hurt and disappearing as a result, he wants to know what happened to them. As an investigative reporter Kelly thus also functions as a Bogart private eye.

In other words, while the movie is devoted to Mindszenty's cause, it's shaped by the low instinct that his cause needs to be popularized. So it focuses on Kelly, and on Stephanie (Bonita Granville), a music teacher who loves Melnikov just a bit less than she loves Hungarian liberty. This leads to some loony mixtures of romance and politics, the choicest being when the Politburo's man in Budapest, Commissar Belov (Roland Winters), walks into Melnikov's office and finds Stephanie in his arms, during a brief pause in her attempt to get him to start an anti-Communist underground with her. Without hesitating Melnikov turns her in. This perfidy is hard to respond to because the betrayal of a lover can't make Communist police-state tactics any worse than they are in themselves. Such a climax is camp, the cliffhanger on a Radio Free America daytime soap opera.

Stephanie is similar to Granville's role in Hitler's Children and Derr, a jaw-clencher, plays Melnikov in the same robotic manner as Tim Holt plays the Hitler Jugend opposite her (and, even more amusingly, as the 13-year-old Skip Homeier plays the devious grade-school fascist in Tomorrow, the World! (1944)). The point of having an ideologically committed character like Melnikov say nothing outside the scope of his ideological commitment (he tends not to use contractions, either) is to emphasize how the ideology dehumanizes its adherents. Instead it exposes the writer's, and generally the actors', inadequacy. (What any actor could do with dialogue like this I don't know: Melnikov: "I'm sure if he saw you, Stalin himself would insist upon kissing the bride." Stephanie: "Darling, you're wonderful!")

Guilty of Treason is a B-movie, budget and soul, and yet its political judgments are grounded in an accurate journalistic evaluation of a deplorable reality. At the core of its inauthentic recreation of Budapest in turmoil is an awareness of the plain sordidness of the events, conveyed with the most brutal force in the scenes of Stephanie's torture, which are the least ennobling—and least eroticized—ever filmed in Hollywood. They more than make up for the dopey love story that leads up to them.

In addition, as Mindszenty Charles Bickford (who looks exactly like what the Cardinal was—a man of the earth and of the people who worked it) is given dialogue adapted from the Cardinal's writings and speeches, which lends the actor an unusual amount of dignity. Bickford isn't wise in a folksy, Hollywood manner because the Cardinal's words are not ecumenical. They're too specific for generalized man-for-all-seasons reverence, and the issue was too hot and glamorless. (One advantage of treating it as a contemporary news story rather than an historical pageant, like the martyrdom of Thomas More, for instance, which allows for courtly pomp and finery.) During his interrogations, Bickford stands tall in the blinding spotlight and gives his gravelly voice to direct statement of the Cardinal's positions.

In The Prisoner, the fact that the Cardinal is not explicitly named as Mindszenty frees Guinness to create a character, a man who has refined the earth in himself. (Though the differences between Mindszenty's experience and Guinness's as the Cardinal did make Mindszenty deeply skeptical of the movie. In the Preface to his Memoirs he noted acerbically, "[T]he interrogation is conducted along the well-mannered lines of good society. The prisoner is even addressed as 'Your Eminence.' The mere fact that the guard so much as speaks to the prisoner must seem astonishing to anyone who has been interrogated by Hungarian Communists.") The Prisoner doesn't state its anti-Stalinism explicitly, so Guinness's Cardinal can speak for himself rather than for "us."

Guilty of Treason has Bickford speak for Mindszenty, and, in the subplot involving Stephanie's insistence on playing Hungarian music in the state-run school, it dramatizes the nationalism in which he believed. Plus, the granitic Bickford is monumental to the sight in a way the more decorative, though infinitely more talented, Guinness is not. But if Guilty of Treason preserves Mindszenty as a public figure, it also pushes him to the side of the story. His martyrdom somehow becomes Stephanie's story, with Kelly stating "our" reaction to it the way Joel McCrea broadcasts "our" reaction to the international threat of fascism after it's been dramatized for us in Foreign Correspondent (1940).

Finally, Guilty of Treason has certain similarities to George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005). Both are about crusading journalists who cover the story of a public figure at the center of a Cold War political storm, and both public figures speak in their own, historic words. Both movies incorporate a pair of young lovers threatened by the political gear-grinding around them (as does The Prisoner). And each movie begins and ends with the hero's admonitory speech to a gathering of journalists.

Unlike Good Night, and Good Luck., Guilty of Treason is not a sleekly crafted or deftly acted work. But Clooney's movie isn't any less cornily heroic as romance than Guilty of Treason, which does not end with the victory of its grizzled knight. Moreover, Clooney's use of McCarthy as a metaphoric bogeyman to shame current journalists and artists is embarrassingly facile, and, as Jack Shafer's 5 October 2005 Slate.com article attests, Good Night, and Good Luck. isn't as much as journalistically accurate. Much of Lavery's script for Guilty of Treason was scraped off the bottom of the barrel, but at the same time the movie offers a snapshot of genuine historic outrage and that's something you can't laugh off.