Thursday, January 10, 2008

History Is Not Necessarily Drama

When Hollywood deals with history, it often pisses people off. They take an actual event and twist it around for the sake of drama or comedy or what have you, apparently with little regard for what actually happened. It's bad enough when something is "based on a true story," but when it's merely "inspired," it really gets bad. Having said that, the basic goal is usually laudable - fiction, even fact-based fiction, is supposed to be engaging and dramatic. If it's just the base facts we need, a documentary will do.

Those thoughts were going through my head last night after I watched Sophie Scholl - The Final Days, an Oscar-nominated 2005 film from Germany. The movie tells the amazing true story of a young woman who, along with her brother and other students, urged resistance to the Nazi regime during World War II while deep in the heart of the Reich. And it plays it straight - according to Roger Ebert's review, much of the dialogue comes from court records and transcripts of Scholl's interrogations.

While that's admirable, the end result is a film that has almost no dramatic tension to it. The title gives away the inevitable conclusion - it covers the last few days of Scholl's life, during which she is caught distributing anti-Hitler leaflets, arrested, charged, tried, and executed. The interrogations she undergoes at the hands of a cold Nazi cop are oddly dry - the reviewers who call them "intense" or "harsh" have apparently never seen videotapes of real interrogations in the United States, or even an episode of Homicide. The odd fact that our heroine actually did what she is accused of doing opens up lots of potential avenues, but since we're hewing to the historical record, they can't be explored. Once the charge comes down, the rest is all inevitable and while it's hard to watch (the court scene, in particular, will make your skin crawl), it lacks anything that really draws you in.

With that said, it's not a bad film - far from it. The performances are good, particularly the guy who plays the interrogator. The end of the film contains perhaps the most chilling bloodless killing ever put on screen. But there's just not much in it by the end, at least for me.

So next time you're watching/reading something "based" on history, keep in mind that it's still fiction and that fiction has different goals than documentary works. Take it easy on Hollywood when it's trying to entertain.


iremonger said...

I looked up Sophie Scholl last year after hearing James Whale list her as one of the heroes of the 20th century. I though it was a devastating film. European films are often difficult to watch - have you seen Downfall? It's about the end of WWII focusing on Hitler and those surrounding him. Brutal film, especially the scene with Goebbels poisoning their children. Sometimes you need good ole Hollywood escapism!

JDB said...

Yes, I've seen Downfall - I thought it was excellent (it made my year in review last month). Brutal, indeed.

Donutbuzz said...

I believe you may have posted about United 93 earlier, JDB. That's one film that, as I understand it, plays it straight and prompts incredible emotion. Perhaps that film is the exception, not the rule.

I have not yet seen Downfall, so I'll have to get to that one.

JDB said...

Good point about United 93, Hoyt. Obviously, there are some circumstances where the best dramatic decision is to just get out of the way and let what really happened speak for itself. For me (at least - and I seem to be in the minority, judging from the Netflix comments), SS-TFD isn't one of those.

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