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Thug Lives

Tsotsi Photo by Blid Alsbirk and Miramax Films

I’m not entirely persuaded that the socio-political nexus of the new South Africa is best represented by American ghetto noir, but if any movie is going to do justice to both subject and form it’s Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, a handsomely mounted thriller about an ugly world pinned under the long shadow of apartheid. Nimbly directed and adapted by Hood from playwright Athol Fugard’s 1980 novel set during a particularly brutal phase of white oppression in the 1950s, the movie, which is South Africa’s Oscar nominee for best foreign film, shifts the focus to the black-on-black violence that disfigures today’s post-apartheid townships, mired in poverty, squalor and a dead-end cynicism not unlike that of inner-city gang life in the United States. Where Fugard’s novel ended in tragedy, though, Hood’s movie, which is made in the same spirit of tough-minded reconciliation that has dominated the new regime’s efforts at societal repair, ends on a note of slender hope.

The plot is stark, verging on crude. A young gang leader hijacks a car from a black bourgeois matron and, discovering that he has also inadvertently stolen her baby, appropriates the screaming infant as his own. This is asking for schmaltz, but Hood’s intelligent, humane screenplay plumbs beneath the action to render a meditative study of the maimed yet unformed psyche of a boy struggling for redemption from his day job as a thug, the only viable career open to most kids from the chronically underemployed townships. Played with insidious stillness by Presley Chweneyagae (like most of the cast, this magnetic actor is drawn from Johannesburg community theater), Tsotsi is a snappily dressed time bomb whose inexpressive mug gives little warning of his casual knifing of an old black man for a few bucks in the subway. Like most bullies, Tsotsi has thin skin, and when one of his underlings, a failed teacher, taunts him by asking if he knows his real name (tsotsi is a generic term for thug), Tsotsi beats him to a pulp. For all his street cachet and raw charisma (the pounding soundtrack is full of Kwaito music, the Johannesburg equivalent of rap), Tsotsi lives like everyone else in a rude shack, and, pathetically, he carries the baby around in a brown-paper carrier bag. When it becomes evident that he can’t care for the infant, he forces his way into the home of Miriam (played by Terry Pheto, a stately beauty), a young widow with an infant of her own, and browbeats her into nursing the child. Only it turns out he’s met his match, for Miriam’s quiet integrity and steady gaze disarm him and inspire trust, offering a protected space from which, at last, he can remember a grisly childhood destroyed by AIDS and alcoholism. As Miriam intuits early on, Tsotsi is scarcely more than a child himself, which makes him either a tragedy waiting to happen, or a faint hope for better things to come. The end is a kind of surrender that wisely leaves open the question of whether he’s succumbing to a grim future or to his better self — very possibly both. Made with local talent by a South African director, Tsotsi is lifted above the current slew of movies portraying Africa as a helpless victim of its many problems, redeemable only by sympathetic white Westerners (as in John Boorman’s sermonizing 2004 drama In My Country, and to a lesser degree The Constant Gardener), by its vigorously transcendent spirit of self-help.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which also represents its country at this year’s Academy Awards, is no less than the third German feature to be made about the doomed young leader of the White Rose, a Munich-based student movement that sought to turn the tide against Hitler by spreading the word about his craven abandonment of German troops in the disastrous battle of Stalingrad. It’s not hard to see why some of Germany’s top filmmakers keep hacking away at this sorry slice of their history (Michael Verhoeven and Percy Adlon, who spent their childhoods under Nazi rule, made separate movies about the White Rose, both released in 1982). Along with her brother Hans and other activists, Scholl was caught leafleting on campus in 1943 and, after relentless interrogation and a farcical closed-door trial, guillotined without benefit of the 99-day grace period prescribed by law. Quite apart from its inherent dramatic potential, this rare instance of resistance to the Third Reich both scratches at the lingering sore of civilian culpability and provides an irresistible opportunity to rescue some vestigial heroism from this benighted period.

Sophie Scholl is briefly bookended by high-octane dramatic sequences and fleshed out first by intimate confidences between Sophie (The Edukators’ Julia Jentsch) and her communist cellmate, Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf), then by a florid courtroom drama that may or may not exaggerate the degree to which Nazi apparatchiks felt threatened by this tiny group of activists whose end run against their gargantuan force was as quixotic as it was admirable. But the heartbeat of the movie, which is directed with more diligence than flair by Marc Rothemund from a script by Fred Breinersdorfer, is a sober reconstruction of the cat-and-mouse exchanges between Sophie and her interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held).

That is this careful film’s strength, and also its weakness. Based on fresh material from recovered interrogation and trial records, Sophie Scholl is painstakingly faithful to the facts of the case, charting this devout young Protestant’s passage from protestations of innocence to her proud assumption of responsibility under assault from an interrogator increasingly freaked out by her steady dignity. The movie isn’t dry — Jentsch is utterly harrowing as Sophie, barely out of girlhood and struggling to maintain her composure and her sense of self under unspeakable pressure. But the script is so intellectualized that I couldn’t help feeling I was witnessing not two complex people locked in struggle, but the opposed souls (and classes) of Germany: Sophie, emblem of the cultured, tolerant and enlightened humanism of the middle classes duking it out with Mohr, resentful member of a disenfranchised proletariat from whose ranks sprang Hitler’s most loyal quislings. We learn that ultimately Sophie is sustained by her liberal upbringing and her Protestant faith, but while the filmmakers are at pains to avoid portraying her as an ascetic Christian martyr — we see her listening to jazz with a girlfriend and leaning into the weak sunlight filtering through the bars of her prison cell — there is little sense of what sets this seemingly ordinary girl apart and gives her her steely resolve.

This is a critical question, for if many films about the Third Reich (among them the potent 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary) ask which among us would have held up under pressure to collaborate, few have asked what kind of person would resist to the death. The truly amazing revelation in Sophie Scholl is that her interrogator, himself the father of a soldier fighting on the Eastern front, gave her an eleventh-hour out, a way to save herself, though at the expense of her rigorous moral code. For myself, I’d have liked to know more about what forces deep within this courageous young woman made her say no.

TSOTSI | Written and directed by GAVIN HOOD | Based on the novel by ATHOL FUGARD | Produced by PETER FUDAKOWSKI | Released by Miramax Films | At Pacific ArcLight and Landmark NuWilshire

SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS | Directed by MARC ROTHEMUND | Written by FRED BREINERSDORFER | Produced by CHRISTOPH MUELLER, SVEN BURGEMEISTER, BREINERSDORFER and ROTHEMUND | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At selected theaters