- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

The German actress and filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta devoted a patient decade to raising the production capital for “Rosenstrasse,” a labor of love paying tribute to the tenacity of a group of so-called Aryan wives — gentile women married to Jews during the Hitler regime.

Evidently, Joseph Goebbels envisioned a “Jew-free Berlin” as a morale booster for Adolf Hitler in the winter of 1943. He couldn’t make the roundup stick when the wives held tough, sustaining a vigil outside the community center on Rosenstrasse where the men were being held.

Its decency notwithstanding, the stylistic neatness and decorum of the presentation in “Rosenstrasse” defy an adequate sense of the fear and desperation experienced by people facing mortal danger and irreparable loss.

Alternating episodes in English and German, the film shifts between Manhattan and Berlin settings in the present, plus ominous flashbacks to Berlin in February of 1943.

The backtracking scenario uses a young woman named Hannah Weinstein (Maria Schrader) as an explorer into the past. The death of her father seems to have driven his widow, Ruth (Jutta Lampe), into an unprecedented expression of Jewish piety while mourning the deceased.

We’re led to believe that Mrs. Weinstein had never been so passionately observant in the past. Now she’s even intolerantly observant, loathe to welcome Hannah’s gentile fiance as a fellow mourner.

Knowing that her mother was an orphaned German Jewish child who survived World War II, Hannah begins looking closely into this traumatic past during a pilgrimage to Berlin.

Miraculously, she lucks into a definitive witness, the 90-year old Lena Fischer (Doris Schade), who sheltered an abandoned, 8-year-old Ruth during the Rosenstrasse vigil. At the same time she was drawing on aristocratic family connections to aid her own endangered spouse, a concert violinist named Fabian.

The younger, on-the-spot Lena is impersonated very attractively by Katja Riemann. The character’s lobbying and sacrifices culminate in what one takes to be a fanciful, melodramatically dodgy submission to opportunistic fornication when propositioned by a Nazi admirer.

There’s very little sense of the Rosenstrasse wives as an impromptu protest organization capable of effective coordination or premeditation. Their persistence at the detention site alone doesn’t seem to explain the regime’s willingness to defuse the crisis.

The movie suggests that all hope would be lost without a high-born heroine willing to barter sex for freedom, a solution that seems to owe its allegiance to theatricality rather than authenticity.

Subplots do account for the travails of two other women, including Ruth’s mother, eventually a victim of total despair, but there’s relatively little immersion in a “collective” struggle. Certainly less than one might anticipate from a filmmaker once conspicuously associated with the European left and modern feminism.

Margarethe von Trotta seems to have mellowed to a fault, and a 10-year wait for a green light — not to mention the aging of the World War II generation — may have deprived her subject of the impact and pathos it deserves.


TITLE: “Rosenstrasse”

RATING: PG-13 (adult subject matter, dealing with the cruelties of the Nazi regime; occasional profanity, sexual candor and episodes of domestic conflict)

CREDITS: Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Screenplay by Miss von Trotta and Paula Katz. Cinematography by Franz Ruth and Jon Betke. Production design by Heinke Bauerfeld. Costume design by Ursula Eggert. Music by Loek Dikker. Some dialogue in German with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 136 minutes


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