Freiheit! by Andrea Grosso Ciponte

I am not a huge graphic novel reader, but when given the chance to explore an interesting subject or approach to illustration I will pick one up.

Freiheit! by Andrea Grosso Ciponte is a good example.

With an entire nation blindly following an evil leader, where did a handful of students find the courage to resist? The university students who formed the White Rose, an undercover resistance movement in Nazi Germany, knew that doing so could cost them their lives. But some things are worth dying for.

The White Rose printed and distributed leaflets to expose Nazi atrocities and wake up their fellow citizens. The Gestapo caught and executed them. Sophie Scholl was twenty-one; her brother Hans, twenty-four; Christoph Probst, twenty-three; Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, twenty-five.

But the White Rose was not silenced. Their heroism continues to inspire new generations of resisters. Now, for the first time, this story that has been celebrated in print and film can be experienced as a graphic novel. Italian artist Andrea Grosso Ciponte’s haunting imagery will resonate with today’s students and activists. The challenges they face may vary, but the need for young people to stand up against evil, whatever the cost, will remain.

I was intrigued by the description: “The dramatic true story of a handful of students who resisted the Nazis and paid with their lives, now in a stunning graphic novel.”

I found it an odd yet powerful exploration of the underground resistance to Hitler. The art is dark and almost surreal while the text is formal and driven by literature and philosophy.

But the urgent sense that these young people gave their lives to fight the monstrous Nazis is powerful enough to overcome weaknesses in the presentation. The letters at the end are a piece of history that should not be forgotten.

[editorial aside: frustratingly, I received a copy via NetGalley that was via PDF and expired after a certain date. I lazily didn’t pay attention and when I went back to re-read it more closely before posting a review, it had expired. So I am unable to offer a particularly in depth review, alas. Not that I have a good track record of that these days…]

Instead allow me to offer you some quotes that I think will highlight the work’s strength and weaknesses:

The timeline and additional characters who join them can be hard to follow in Ciponte’s elegiac retelling, which features many cinematic shots of the students striding and in strident discussion, but in places lacks context clues and labels that would help guide readers unfamiliar with the history. (Though the many interspersed quotes and full reproductions of the leaflets in back matter provides ample authenticity.) The beautifully lit panels play with darkness and light, balancing youthful joy with the long shadows of Nazis’ power. In one poignant scene, the youth paint the rallying cry “Freiheit!” (German for “freedom!”) in white across a wall at night. Even though their graffiti is erased the next day, the friends cherish every wild glimmer of defiance, even as three are killed for their role in the resistance. Their anti-fascist fearlessness resonates in Ciponte’s moving treatment, which will speak to like-minded young activists.

Publishers Weekly

Kirkus echoes the criticism about narrative weakness:

Aside from dates, glimpses of documents, and a few invented lines of dialogue, Ciponte’s sketchy narrative text is largely a mix of quotations from classic German writers, Nazi propaganda, and snippets of rhetoric drawn directly from the six exhortatory leaflets (all of which are provided in full as backmatter in an English translation by Arthur R. Schultz) that the White Rose printed and distributed before its abrupt end. This leaves it to the art to create a storyline, and it’s not up to the task, being arranged in loosely sequenced panels, marked by confusingly abrupt changes in time and locale, in which watery figures with hard-to-distinguish features are either posed in static groups or portrayed in head shots. Reproductions of official reports serve in place of explicit depictions of the executions. Russell Freedman’s We Will Not Be Silent (2016) and Kip Wilson’s White Rose (2019) offer a more coherent picture of the short careers of Sophie Scholl and her fellow protesters, but readers will come away appreciating the courage it took for these young collegians to stand up as they did. Though the leaflets are almost unreadably cerebral, they do serve as primary sources for the White Rose’s message.A heartfelt, well-deserved tribute but a muddle for readers not already familiar with the story.

Kirkus

I think your enjoyment is likely tied to your knowledge of the time period and subject matter and whether you are visual or narrative focused. If you have a decent knowledge of the period and the subject of Nazi Germany, you can enjoy the story because your have more context. The less historical knowledge you have the more you might struggle to follow the story or narrative.

Similarly, if you are a visual person you might enjoy the power of the story and the art without needing a lot of context; which you could research later ( see this on Sophie Scholl and the White Rose for example). Whereas, if you are more likely to focus on words and structure, you might struggle a little with the way the story is laid out.

Nevertheless, it is a powerful story and one worth learning about. If you enjoy graphic novels, check it out.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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