The trouble with Nazis is that in movies there's not a lot of room for surprise. There's no place for them to go but insane. The ones in ''Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," a foreign-language Oscar nominee for 2005, are no exception. They're hotheaded, shrill, delusional, and intolerant. The young woman they're up against, in this chilling movie, is heroic and unflappable.
Based on actual tragic events, the film is about the White Rose, a tiny group of German college kids whose shared intellectual pursuits culminated in a mutual loathing of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. They printed up and passed out leaflets that took ordinary German citizens to task for allowing the Nazi steamroller to flatten free thought.
Not long after the film gets underway in 1943 Munich, 21-year-old Sophie (Julia Jentsch) and her headstrong older brother, Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), the White Rose's cofounder, set out to distribute the group's latest round of leaflets on their campus.
This is a life-risking move, and Marc Rothemund, directing from Fred Breinersdorfer's script, turns the sequence into a nail-biter, cuing the Hollywood political-thriller music as Sophie and Hans remove stacks of paper from a bag and a suitcase and plant them throughout empty halls and corridors.
They have until the class bell rings, and the heightened drama works as suspense, particularly when, in the name of thoroughness, Sophie feels compelled to get rid of a leftover stack. In the name of a pretty image, she pushes another stack over a balcony. Naturally, she and Hans are arrested and hauled away in front of scores of their classmates, accused of high treason, aiding the enemy, and demoralizing the troops, charges that carry with them a life sentence or the death penalty.
The Scholls are separated, and the movie spends nearly all its time with Sophie and Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), her unappeasably angry Gestapo interrogator. She denies everything, but after being presented with incriminating evidence, she turns righteous. And for scenes at a time, the two square off in a shot, reverse-shot rhythm you could almost set a clock by. He accuses her of heresy. She basically says, ''But you're killing Jews." Then he gets so mad he looks ripe for explosion.
Their conversations, while adapted from facts, feel rigged -- as, morally speaking, they have to be. As Sophie, Jentsch has the luxury of having history and humanity on her side, so she's free to remain calm while Held shrieks and bounces off the walls. At some point, a rundown Mohr tells Sophie that she's smart, but he's perplexed nonetheless. ''Why don't you think like us?" he asks, adding that there's honor, prosperity, and freedom in National Socialism. But she's appalled by Hitler's lust for eugenics, reminding Mohr that ''every life is precious."
The movie characterizes Sophie as brave and morally certain to the point of seeming a little demented. After her initial arrest, she looks exhilarated, like a young persecuted heroine in a Carl Dreyer picture. Later, she placidly watches a nearby air raid from the windows of her cell while her cellmate urges her to get down. Sophie is even given a chance for clemency if she renounces her ideas. She rebuffs the offer, setting up an appointment with a strident Gestapo judge (André Hennicke) who insists that she, Hans, and a fellow White Rose member, Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter), be swiftly put to death.
Rothemund gives us his sophisticated filmmaking only in the finale, which is devastating in its briskness and fury. The screen goes black. But we can hear what's happening, and, suddenly, even though we can't see this woman and her comrades, their martyrdom and saintliness seem completely visible.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.