Even when it was nominated for an Oscar, I avoided Sophie SchollThe Final Days. After all, like Snakes on a Plane and Alien vs. Predator, it’s one of those movies where the title tells the entire story. In 1943, student Sophie distributes anti-fascist fliers, gets busted, convicted, and executed. It won’t spoil a thing when I tell you the movie fades to black over the sound of a dropping guillotine. Good friends of mine attended Geschwister-Scholl-Gesamtschule–surely I was exempt from having to sit through this?

But fear of boredom was only part of the reason I resisted this movie. After seeing Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi at a very impressionable age, tragedies about fearlessness in the face of abusive authority and the ultimate price of idealism have always hit me hard. Like Gandhi, Sophie Scholl is one of those larger-than-life figures who don’t just inspire but also inspire guilt. Her integrity shines an uneasy light on our own foul compromises with power. After all, my tax check just went to fund a war I oppose. Sophie wouldn’t have mailed it.

As far as unrelenting tragedies about impossibly principled historical figures go, Sophie Scholl is what we like to call “compelling.” Pacing and direction are brisk, the chilling sets (almost all interiors, imposing marbled staircases that drop from lofty atriums to fearful dungeons) serve the drama, and the cast of oddly shaped German faces–defiant, submissive, and (most frightening of all) revealing unmasked murderous opportunism–is most fascinating. I couldn’t take my eyes of Julia Jentsch, who is in every scene. Yes, it’s a history lesson, but first and foremost it’s a lesson in courage. Starker Tobak.

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage. Marc Rothemund, 2005. ****