Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure! -- from a White Rose leaflet
Germany's White Rose movement served as a small, clear candle shining during a murky, terrifying time. Where did a group of students acquire the courage and independence of thought to oppose Hitler at the height of World War II, while their country was under a degree of fascist control unimaginable to most of us? By all accounts, Wilhelm Graf, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl and the other members of the group were neither leftist nor political. They were inspired by moral outrage, horror at the crimes Germany was committing, grief at the fate of Jewish friends and a profound romanticism. The six leaflets that the White Rose managed to produce and distribute called for the German people to come to their senses and quoted the words of Goethe and Schiller. Even in a cynical age, it's impossible not to be moved by these students' bravery and goodness. Three of them -- Hans, Sophie and Christoph -- were arrested on February 18, 1943. Four days later, they were put to death. More executions followed.
The White Rose, a play by Lillian Garrett-Groag, is currently showing at The Loft, in the theater building of the University of Colorado. This is a student show, which means the production values are, for the most part, utilitarian (though some impressively authentic Nazi-era posters have been unearthed for display), and there's unevenness in the acting. In addition, the script itself has problems. When a play depicts historical events, suspense is sacrificed; the audience knows what will happen, and the focus shifts to deeper questions of how and why. Using a mix of invention, fact and quotation, Garrett-Groag attempts to answer such questions. The play shifts back and forth between the students' activities and the inner struggles of Gestapo officer Robert Mohr (Eric D. Pasto-Crosby). Hans and Sophie have been caught distributing leaflets; in a moment of carelessness or pure high spirits, Sophie had tossed a few hundred over a balcony at the university. Mohr interrogates them. He's touched by the group's youth and innocence and is inclined to let them go. At the very least, he wants to save Sophie. But circumstances are closing in on him.
Meanwhile, in counterpoint flashbacks and on the other side of the playing arena, the students discuss politics, crank out and distribute leaflets -- a time-absorbing task in the days before the information age -- and even party a little. Christoph, the one married member of the group, passes around photographs of his son. We sense the beginnings of attraction between Sophie and Alexander (Ross Marquand).
But the play is somewhat static. The back-and-forth becomes predictable, and each character moves along a consistent psychological arc. Mohr is conflicted throughout and weighs the cost of heroism against the warmth and safety of his home and family in scene after scene. The students rarely argue, and they never falter in their resolve. This may be historically accurate. Records stress the group's calm courage, though one spectator said that Sophie, having maintained her equanimity in a visit with her parents right before her execution, broke down later and wept in front of Mohr. She then apologized to him.
Something similar happens in the play. Sophie, realizing death is close, muses with desperate rapture on the beauty of the everyday world. In that moment, she becomes a universal, almost-mythic figure. We remember trapped Anne Frank telling Peter to look at the sky, Joan of Arc faltering, telling her captors she was ready to recant. Sophie begs Mohr to save her, and he comes up with a plan. It involves testifying against her brother, and Sophie finds her resolve again. She must die with Hans, she informs Mohr, "so he wouldn't feel so alone."
There are some good performances here, foremost among them those of Pasto-Crosby as Mohr and Jessie Fisher as a complex Sophie -- lying cheekily through her early encounters with Mohr, but touching in the mingled frailty and determination with which she faces her end. The students are lively, the Nazi soldiers impassive; Shaun Flaherty does well as Mohr's coldly insinuating fellow officer Mahler.
In an odd way, the production's homespun quality enhances its effectiveness. It's impossible to forget that the performers are the same age as the people they portray. There's something moving in that authenticity and in their attempts to reach back through time and understand both the horrors of Nazism and the valor of their counterparts in the White Rose.
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