After almost a decade in television, director Margarethe von Trotta returns to film with “Rosenstrasse,” a sober, unsensationalized enactment of a Holocaust incident. Von Trotta keeps sentimentality at bay and, as a result, the film isn’t as emotionally wrenching as it might have been. But pic benefits from the device of bringing the horrifying incidents up-to-date by giving the story a contemporary spin. Fine performances from leads Katja Riemann and Maria Schrader should ensure solid box office in European territories, with success in North America more problematic but not out of the question if reviews are positive.
Von Trotta’s most interesting films have centered on the friendship between two women, and there are several such friendships here. Most rewarding is the bond that develops between a young New Yorker, beautifully played by Schrader, and an elderly German (Doris Schade) who holds the secrets that the girl’s American mother never told her.
Film begins in New York as a Jewish family goes into mourning after the death of its patriarch. The widow, Ruth (Jutta Lampe), insists on a strictly orthodox mourning period, and upsets her daughter Hannah (Schrader) by demanding that her non-Jewish fiance, Luis (Fedja van Huet) leave.
One of the participants in the wake is Ruth’s cousin, Rachel (Carola Regnier). Rachel tells Hannah something her mother had never revealed to her — that when Ruth lost her parents during the war at the age of 7, she was cared for by an Aryan woman called Lena Fischer. Determined to find out more, Hannah decides impulsively to travel to Berlin.
Here she discovers Lena (Schade) is still alive, an alert nonagenarian who lives alone in her small apartment and vividly recalls those days in early 1943 when the Nazis arrested Jews who were married to Aryans and placed them in a holding area in a building on Rosenstrasse. Lena, played as a young woman by Riemann, was the daughter of a pro-Nazi aristocrat who had rebelled by marrying Fabian Fischer (Martin Feifel), a Jewish violinist.
When Fabian is rounded up, Lena asks her brother, Arthur (Jurgen Vogel), to intercede with the Nazi authorities on her behalf. She also joins a group of women who keep vigil outside the house in Rosenstrasse in silent protest.
Among the group are Klara (Thekla Reuten), Fabian’s office-worker sister, and little Ruth (Svea Lohde), who is looking for her mother. In Ruth’s case, her Aryan father had abandoned her and her mother when the going got tough, and now her mother is missing also. Lena becomes Ruth’s protector.
An opening title states that all the events depicted in the film that occurred on Rosenstrasse between Feb. 27 and March 6, 1943, are historically correct. The story is an unusual one, as Lena’s dogged attempts to save her husband, and the efforts of her brother on her behalf, eventually result in a meeting with Goebbels (Martin Wuttke), who seems more interested in beautiful women than in affairs of state.
Von Trotta’s sober direction is well suited to this intriguing story, though her pacing is at times overly relaxed, resulting in a film that runs longer than it should. However, pic is always watchable thanks to the fine perfs, with Riemann and Schade, who convincingly portray young and old Lena, respectively, rating high in the acting stakes.
“Rosenstrasse” may shed no new light on a grim period, but as a testament to the dogged courage and determination of women who refused to accept the fate of their husbands, the film certainly has its inspirational elements. Production values are excellent.
Production: A Concorde Filmverleih presentation of a Studio Hamburg Letterbox Filmproduktion-TeleMunchen (Germany)/Get Reel Prods. (Netherlands) production, in association with FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, FilmForderung Hamburg, Filmboard Berlin-Brandenburg, FFA, BKM, Dutch Film Fund, Cobo Fund, Eurimages. (International sales: Studio Canal, Paris.) Produced by Richard Schops, Henrik Meyer, Markus Zimmer. Co-producers, Volker Struycken, Errol Nayci. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Screenplay, von Trotta, Pamela Katz.
Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Jan Betke; editor, Corina Dietz; music, Loek Dikker; production designer, Heike Bauersfeld; costume designer, Ursula Eggert; sound (Dolby Digital), Eric Rueff; creative producer, Kerstin Ramcke; line producer, Sabine Schild; assistant director, Peter Altmann; casting, Sabine Schroth. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice 60, competing), Aug. 30, 2003. Running time: 135 MIN.
With: Lena Fischer - Katja Riemann Hannah - Maria Schrader Fabian Fischer - Martin Feifel Arthur von Eschenbach - Jurgen Vogel Ruth Weinstein - Jutte Lampe Lena Fischer, Age 90 - Doris Schade Luis Marquez - Fedja van Huet Rachel Rosenbauer - Carola Regnier Ruth, Age 7 - Svea Lohde Mrs. Goldberg - Jutta Wachowiak Nathan Goldberg - Jan Decleir Klara Fischer - Thekla Reuten Erika - Lilian Schiffer Miriam Sussmann - Lena Stolze Fabian's Mother - Isolde Barth Fabian's Father - Fritz Lichtenhahn Litzy - Nina Kunzendorf Goebbels - Martin Wuttke
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In Rosenstrasse, German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta throws so many tumultuous storylines together that it’s a miracle that her movie comes off as smoothly as it does. By the end of her 135-minute saga, the viewer is left both impressed by the gracefulness and subtlety of its effects and confused by exactly what the sum total of those effects are. Each of the movie’s three women, all from different generations, is trying to heal from the emotional fallout of WWII. Anxious to determine the root cause of her Jewish mother Ruth’s (Jutta Lampe) inveterate prejudice against non-Jews, Hannah (Maria Schrader), a young New Yorker, travels to Berlin where she locates the sweet-tempered elderly Lena (Doris Schade), an Aryan woman who became Ruth’s adoptive mother following the 1943 Rosenstrasse uprisings.
Von Trotta shifts between Hannah’s interviews with Lena and the uprising itself when Aryan women protested the detentions of their Jewish husbands on the titular Berlin street. Among them is young Lena (Katja Riemann) who, in the midst of keeping vigil on Rosenstrasse and making anguished appeals for her husband’s release, forms a tender relationship with Ruth (Svea Lohde), an eight-year-old abandoned after Nazis arrested her mother. Von Trotta underscores Ruth’s tragic ignorance of her mother’s fate in one shot that sweeps up from the girl, standing alone in the street, to a window of an empty holding cell above. The shot is meant to be a poignant remark of Ruth’s lonely destiny, but feels superfluous and heavy-handed since the fate of Ruth’s mother has already been made explicit to the audience some scenes earlier.
While von Trotta withholds Ruth her due closure, she commits the inverse narrative flub on the matter of her father, an Aryan man who abandoned Ruth and her mother years earlier. Showing us this event, so crucial to our understanding of the older Ruth’s mistrust of non-Jews, might’ve gone a long way in deepening our sympathy for her and adding poignancy to her survival story. But, confoundingly, von Trotta reveals this information in the dullest way imaginable: through dialogue. And, what’s worse, it’s spoken not by Ruth but by the older Lena, a character with only second-hand knowledge of it. The matter is, hence, discarded like so much expository detritus and lost in the scattered fragments of the narrative.
Matters of storytelling is Rosenstrasse‘s most chronic problem. A testament to the courage and resilience of women makes for a good essay or folk anthem, but, for the purposes of an intimate character study, its handling here is far too abstract. The movie loses its center of gravity, tipped off balance by too many stories all vying for emotional dominance. In this way, Rosenstrasse falls apart under its own weight. Given its gently assured pacing and evocative visual design, however, it’s clear that an astute filmmaker is at the helm. To her credit, Von Trotta also manages to navigate a story rife with emotional wounds without stumbling into sensationalism or melodrama. Where von Trotta most redeems her waywardness, though, is in her use of faces. All of Rosenstrasse revolves around the war-weary expressions of women enduring the traumas of loss and separation, women who barter their sexual integrity for a glint of hope, who mourn the bitterness left in war’s wake and, finally, brighten with joy having found a redemption long sought for. In its wonderful faces, then, Rosenstrase finds an emotional resonance that it strives toward in its telling and never quite accomplishes.