S‹DDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG, October 3, 1982

Speak, I’m listening

By Percy Adlon

Two films about the anti-Nazi Resistance of the Scholl siblings and their friends are already in production: Michael Verhoeven’s “White Rose” and Percy Adlon’s “Five Last Days”. We asked Percy Adlon, himself the father of a daughter and a son, to write down for us what was going on in his mind as he worked on this subject.wp12e43754.jpg

It was the beginning of 1981. March. Bavarian T.V. grounds in Freimann/Munich. I had forgotten an urgent telephone call. I ran back—smack into Heinz Boehmler, head of the Bavarian Division, who was standing there—between the pair of glass doors flapping open and closed outside the T.V. cafeteria. Remarkably unflustered, he said he wanted me to do something along the lines of the “White Rose.” He wanted to commission a work of this kind.

Boehmler himself was acquainted with some of the group members; he named Alexander Schmorell, a well known participant. But, the events, even after the passage of almost forty years, were still too immediate. “No”, he continued, “it’s not likely that anybody could make anything good out of it”. “No”, I agreed. “That isn’t a story for me. Good and Evil and nothing in between—a 20 yr. old, who dies a premature death by guillotine—young people, who fight the Giant-Unjust-Bureaucratic-Fascist-Machine with a lofty rebellion and a couple thousand leaflets”. “But”, Boehmler said, “think it over a while”. The glass doors snapped shut.

The throat of twenty one year old Sophie Scholl. For months this image went round and round in my mind.

I rode on the subway towards the editing room. Next year my own daughter would be 21. I saw her and her friend before me as Sophie and Hans Scholl. They are Saskia and Andreas, but they are also Sophie and Hans. They read the Scholls’ letters to each other. They read documents about the “White Rose”. These children of the welfare state imagine that the Scholl siblings and their friends died for something, something which they, Saskia and Andreas, take for granted as self evident rights: to speak, to read, to write and to bear witness to that which they believe is beautiful, worth knowing, and true. And to protest when something doesn’t suit them. Freedom of thought and of speech.

I see my daughter, how she leans over a piece of paper, writing. Her brown hair is wrapped around her throat in two braids.

No, no film about Sophie Scholl!

The editing room is on Bayerstrasse. What is it with this “White Rose” idea that Boehmler planted in my head. Why am I standing in front of the subway station bookstore staring at a new book “ The Short Life of Sophie Scholl” by Hermann Vinke. My editor, Clara Fabry, made little progress on this day with my film CELESTE because I can only talk about the Boehmler query. I drove home earlier, and two hours later “found” my film on p. 149. Everything came together all of a sudden! No possibility of escape! I was forced to make this picture. One year, perhaps longer, would I have to live with the image of the student, whose brown hair is pulled away from her throat in order to give the guillotine clear access.

The paragraph on p. 149 runs: “There is still another testimonial of each of the 4 days between the 18th and the 22nd of Feb., 1943, a testimonial kept out of compassion and first hand experience and therefore, more personal and dense than the other more detached views. A fellow prisoner with Sophie Scholl, Else Gebel, who shared her cell, wrote it right after the war. She titled it ‘In Remembrance of Sophie Scholl’”.

Previous to that text there were documents about the arrest of the Scholl’s—under the glass roof of the University courtyard.

At first I read the trial record itself with less than full attention. The fact that Sophie Scholl was not alone during the last days of her life had triggered too many associations in me.

These previous readings, the series of documents and dialogues, had captured the child, the girl, the student Sophie Scholl with her love of truth, her calmness, her sharp understanding and her dreams, vibrantly captured her in a manner, which made further work, especially a film about her, superfluous.

But now, suddenly, this cellmate turned up. A space with an overview opened up. A tiny circumscribed circle, timely and three dimensional. And because she has an audience sitting opposite, Sophie S. speaks; she opens up. A woman, a last traveling companion, perhaps a friend, listens and responds.

What does she respond?

Who was this Else Gebel?

In a close reading of her short account, I discovered that the prisoner Else Gebel had to have been working with the Gestapo in the Registry, that she personally conducted the body search of Sophie, that other prisoners were put to the same task as well, keeping a constant stream of secret information circulating in-house, and that in the cells no Nazi run eavesdropping apparatus can have been set up. Moreover, from the text we get the sense that the Gestapo personnel were not demonic personifications of Evil incarnate, who set the scenes in motion, but rather Bavarian civil servants in the last phase of 1943, who did their job, a job many of them for quite some time were no longer so unconditionally eager to perform as they had been in the beginning stages of the Nazi regime. It was therefore all the more threatening, that the two women in the cell, and all the others in the Wittelsbach palace, the so called Gestapo detention center of Munich, knew that the composition, production, and distribution of leaflets rated as high treason and was punishable by death.

On Thursday, the Scholls were arrested. On Saturday, after he had concluded the interrogation, Robert Mohr, the man in charge of the case, brought the condemned Sophie Scholl fruit, cookies and cigarettes. On Monday morning the death sentence was pronounced and executed on Monday night at 7:00 p.m. in Stadelheim. The upright middle class virtues and the legalized death both stared her in the face the entire day.

The end of Else Gebel’s testimony is not printed in Vinke’s book. I found it in the Institute for Contemporary History. It’s only a half page. She describes how the official Mohr, came in the door at five o’clock “still in his coat and hat, pale as chalk”. He confirmed the death sentence, verified that he could still speak to Sophie, that, in other words, she was still in prison in Stadelheim, also that Sophie’ parents were there. When Else G. asks if any prospect of mercy remains, he glanced at the clock on the wall and said, lightly, in a monotone, “think about her in half a hour.”

And Else G. goes on in her account: “how the words hit us like a blow from a sledgehammer. Everyone of us is paralyzed with the knowledge that three pure, innocent people must die, because they have dared to stand up against an organized band of murderers. Because they wanted to end this senseless war. I wanted to scream this aloud, but must sit here, dumb. Lord, have mercy on her, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on her.”

Does this witness still live? Sophie S. would be 61 years old today. Else Gebel, if alive, is possibly in her middle seventies.

The phone book lists 17 Gebels. No Else. One of the 17 says “Yes, Else G. was my aunt. She isn’t alive anymore.”

"Could you give me some information about her?"


Thus, this witness left behind her anonymity.

The nephew, student advisor Walter Gebel, invited Mrs. Luise Suess. They told me what they knew about Else Gebel. I took few notes. I thought of this brief meeting only as a jumping off point. Still, it was soon apparent that these little notes, jotted on scraps of paper, provided me with all the themes, which I needed for my witness.

“Redheaded/ fatalistic/ maternal/ ambitious in her work/ Luise Suess and E. G. were colleagues in the former Munich Uhlfelder department store. E. G.: bookkeeper. Both women esteemed their boss, (so called). He was taken to Dachau concentration camp on Kristallnacht, but was able to escape. Longwinded/ very exact/ /energetic/ could be choleric/ power to help/ always visiting the sick/ inner stillness/ good with figures/ calculated a situation/ lost her father at 15, her mother at 20/ Father a newspaper salesman, Prussian, mother Saxon/ E.G. born in Ausburg in 1907/ loved Karl Valentin/ Music: Bach/ evangelistic/ devout/ managed the household for her brother for 15 yrs./ politically formed by him/ Willi G., Director of an Insurance company, officer (paymaster) / active worker in communist resistance / extreme ideas / even sabotage in every possible way, for example making fields infertile / executed on May 30, ‘44, Berlin-Ploetzensee/ E.G. was 43 on April 20th (2 months after the execution of the Scholls and Christoph Probst’s) / in the Hartwimmer-Olschewski trial (communist resistance group), contact man in Berlin Willi G., from whom E.G. at one time had brought material to Munich, material, which virtually disappeared, so that she was condemned to a comparatively light sentence of 1.25 years in prison, suspended because of the time she spent in detention. End of notes.

I sent the treatment for my film, finished a few days after this meeting, to Boehmler and to Sophie Scholl’s sister, Inge Aicher-Scholl, with the request that I be given access to her sister Sophie’s unpublished letters. In my treatment I had written that the action of the Scholl siblings and their friends was not a political act of resistance, but rather a humanitarian-moral-religious protest.

Inge Aicher Scholl answered: I especially like the idea of structuring such a film around the person of Else G., showing her perspective. It only seems problematic to me that you dispossess the word “Resistance” of its “political” sense, and, by doing so, you reinstitute the old disastrous separation instituted by the German Bourgeois education that places politics on one side and culture and religion on the other. Thus, politics may be purified and elevated to the [slogans of the] political platform. Just the opposite was true of them: They quite clearly understood their action as political. Also, the picture of the Gestapo, how you mean to depict them, seems to be problematic. They didn’t wear black overcoats. They didn’t slam doors. As a rule, they conducted themselves like minor civil servants.

Why had I used this Gestapo-cliché in my treatment? I don’t know. Evidently, I had reacted to just exactly this unbelievable quality of mundane everydayness characteristic of this time, as did the T.V. reader of my script, who mentioned that when the film aired one must indicate in the prologue notes delivered to the audience that everything has been well researched.

After a short telephone conversation, Inge A.-S. agrees that I might visit her and take a peek at the unpublished materials.

The village guest house, where I rented a room, stood about 5 kilometers from the outlying, rebuilt mill in which the Aicher-Scholl family lives and worked. I stayed four days. I parked the car and left it there. Mornings, with the sun on my back, I walked down to the village on the wavy plateau with an occasional, isolated oak here and there, climbed through the mushy little woods next to the brook filled with trout. I sat in the empty, sober, orderly archive, surrounded by hanging files, and heard the voice of Sophie Scholl. Especially in the letters to her friend Lisa Grote and her fiancé, Fritz Hartnagel.

Striking are her sure, critical, observations of people and situations, her delight in humor, her musicality in the choice of words and in the rhythmic flow of sentences and phrases, her quickness when dealing with the unequal judgment or treatment of woman. Since she was in no way sentimental, the notes of her dreams, especially, are pretty sharp, candid, and exact. Mrs. Aicher-Scholl showed me a diary of her sister. A very small, undecorated, hastily done script.

She also laid out for me a lined page and said in her quiet way “Here the ink ran from our father’s tears.” I read:

Munich-Stadelheim Prison

Personal Effects


+Prisoner Scholl, Sophie

1 overcoat, 1 scarf, 1 belt, 1 bra, 1 purse, 4 Mark & 4 Pfennig, photo, 1 letter, 1 unopened pack of cigarettes, 1 opened pack with 9 cigarettes, 1 pack of matches, 1 letter of indictment, 5 Mark 17 Pfennig, 12 apples, pastry, 1 little piece of chocolate.

Munich, 22.2.43


I tramp back through the mushy little wood, heading, with the sun on my back, over the wavy plateau. The lump in the throat, the burning behind the eyes. The Bavarian civil servant Keller, accomplice of hangmen, writes in small neat German school script “1 little piece of chocolate”, while the corpses of Sophie and Hans Scholl and their friend Christopher Probst were tossed on the truck.

I went further out along the field paths through the village in which I had my hotel room. I walked for hours; it was dark at last. I wanted to give up the project. I knew that I couldn’t give it up.

Mrs. Aicher-Scholl had informed me before I’d gone, that tomorrow Michael Verhoeven would be coming in order to introduce the actress, who would be his Sophie-Scholl, Lena Stolze. It would be better for me not to be there. Conversation about both films would without a doubt be too prolonged and complicated. I had read Verhoeven’s “White Rose” script. Long before I had begun this work in fact. But Sophie Scholl’s days in the detention didn’t come into his picture. Neither did E. G. In his film the action of the resistance group was the focus. In mine, the meeting of the two women in extreme circumstances. In his film Sophie acts. In mine, she reveals herself in the long hours of waiting, in conversation with a person whom she trusts.

Inge A.-S, was astonished by Lena Stolze. One could almost imagine that the actress could be the young woman, she said. So not made-up, outside and in.

In the course of that autumn I wrote the script. That is, I gave up a hundred times and began again a hundred more. Always the lump in the throat, the burning behind the eyes. What can a depiction of Sophie Scholl’s last days bring out aside from rage and despair? In me, and later, in the audience.

One evening, I found in Gustav Mahler’s second, the so-called “Resurrection” symphony, the Klopstock line “To bloom again you will be sowed!”. This line contains a consolation that I knew suddenly was the theme of my film “What Sophie S. has done, as a young student, is in the air and continues to spread far and wide” says Ilse A.-S., and she means “that martyrdom is not accidental. Had she (Sophie) never been confronted with this particular fate, then she would have taken part in some other destiny, perhaps one more bourgeois, more secure, but just as worthy.

It became clear to me that the meeting of these two women is hope. A hope, which is always present, the possibility of sympathy in the fate of ones neighbor. To give security, to find security, even if it only lasts a moment. The everyday hope of the little gestures. They say eyes speak. Speak then, I’m listening. They say it will be alright.

Scene: Sophie Scholl stands up. Philipp, himself a prisoner, brings soup and whispers a greeting from Hans—“Despite...” To Else’s questioning look, Sophie replies - “That’s my father’s motto. A quote from Goethe. Allen Gewalten zum Trotz sich erhalten.”

Else asks: “Despite the violent forces against us....we must overcome.” Sophie continues -- “Do you mean, then, that I should save myself?” Else looks at her. Sophie continues—“I have always understood it this way that one may not sell out his conscience, rather, if necessary, he must risk all on its behalf.”

(In due course of working, it also became clear to me that in this Bavarian detention on remand, nothing other than the “normal” procedure can have gone on. Why should there be this demonic quality to the police? They were stuck in the everyday routine of a criminal legislature.)

In regards to Lena Stolze I didn’t approach her until she had almost finished Verhoeven’s film. In the evening of her last day of shooting, Lena Stolze found a note, asking her if she had time in February/March to tackle another leading role in a film—the role of Sophie. I had been to see Verhoeven and asked him if he would object to my using the same actress, if she seemed right to me for the part. He looked at me attentively and answered “I expected that! Yes! It sounds good to me.” Later Lena told me how almost surreal it was to her to be offered the part a second time in another movie before she had finished the first one.

Irm Hermann was proposed to me by her agent for the part of Else G. I telephoned her. The way she spoke, with that small-town Bavarian accent couldn’t be more authentic for a Munich bookkeeper. I should have remembered that from her performances in several Fassbinder films.

Shooting took place in the Boehler-Palais in Brienner-Strasse, a 100 meters distance from the former Wittelsbacher-Palais, in remarkable stillness. I have never lost my awe of this theme. Cast and crew were all of one mind that we must not “dramatise” this story. Something merely happens. We look. Somebody speaks. We listen. The camera runs. One of us has tears in his/her eyes. Each day another is hit. Nobody knew when, on which spot, it might happen, unexpectedly.

I’m proud of one night scene. Sophie recites the “Evening song” by Matthias Claudius. All seven strophes. A poem rising up out of inner necessity. One at a time, Else repeats the last lines. An echo. A confirmation. It is comfort, meaning and again—hope.