In early 1943, the German government seized thousands of Berlin Jews who previously had been allowed their freedom because they were married to Gentiles. The Nazis held them in the former office of the Authority for the Welfare of the Jewish Community at 2-4 Rosenstrasse, planning to deport them to concentration camps. Their families began to assemble in the street in front of the building, more each day, and after months of peaceful but increasingly verbal protest, those held inside were set free.
This is the backstory of Rosenstrasse, the new film from German director Margarethe von Trotta. She structures the story as a series of flashbacks told by a surviving protester, Lena Fischer (Doris Schade in the present day, Katja Riemann in 1943), to Hannah Weinstein (Maria Schrader), the daughter of a little girl whose life Lena saved. Lena’s husband, Fabian (Martin Feifel), was one of the intermarried Jews held in the community center. Their story unspools slowly, occasionally broken up by a brief return to the present, but it’s rarely boring because as the young Lena, Riemann holds the screen so well. She hovers between desperation and conviction, keeping the viewer wondering what she might try next.
She tries a great many things, all to no avail, and as Lena’s optimism dims, Riemann makes us feel it, too. When she goes to plead her case before a high Nazi official at a party full of entertainers and high-ranking soldiers, she tells her brother she can’t believe it; she’d forgotten that this world still existed. You believe her, because after the grim hour you’ve spent with Lena, you’ve forgotten, too.
There is a lovely scene, a flashback within the larger flashback, when you do get a brief glimpse of Lena’s happiness before Hitler came to power. Lena and Fabian are at the beginning of their romance, dancing at a racially mixed Berlin nightclub. The only physical difference in Riemann is her hairstyle and dress, but she convincingly takes 10 years off her age through the contrast between her youthful high spirits and the more dour Lena we’ve come to know. The young, pre-war Lena was a headstrong, talented girl in love with a serious, slightly lugubrious man.
There are other small scenes that are touching, in which you see other family members trying and failing to get news of loved ones and a man who volunteers to be imprisoned so that he can be nearer his captured daughter. One woman confesses to her boss that she’s been missing work so that she could wait outside the collection center, and he firmly tells her that he must know nothing more of it; he can’t risk getting involved, but he slips a few deutschemarks into her hand and tells her to do what she must. These scenes are done without schmaltz and the bravery and decency of these small people fighting against an oppressive system gets to you; you realize suddenly that there’s a suspicious moisture about your eyes.
Eventually, good news comes. Somehow—it’s never clear how—the government has reversed itself; the prisoners are freed to return to their families. This, I’m told is more or less true factually, but as it’s not satisfactorily explained in the film, it arrives as a deus ex machina, and the scene feels like a cheat—the audience is confused rather than elated. This abrupt good fortune doesn’t provide the cathartic release we need after two hours of tension. To watch Lena labor so fruitlessly for so long and then get a happy ending through what apparently amounts to the correction of a clerical error is confounding in the extreme.
Hannah has come to Lena to hear this story because she’s only recently found out that her mother, Ruth, was saved by Lena, and Ruth won’t talk. She’s repressed her past (understandably) and won’t even acknowledge that Lena exists. One would expect Hannah to be rather disappointed with the telling, as Lena reveals little about the young Ruth, and in the flashbacks she seems mostly indifferent to her. She became a foster mother to Ruth for several years, but for all the interest von Trotta puts into that story, Lena might as well have been asked to cat sit.
Ruth sits at the center of the plot, yet she doesn’t connect much with anyone or anything. As an adult, she’s played with frigid reserve by Jutta Lampe; as a child, Svea Lohde makes her merely distant and peevish. At any age, the conception is largely schematic. All Ruth gives us is her unyielding will and her deep sorrow. There is an Aha! moment in the middle of film, when a fact is revealed that explains the harshness in the adult Ruth. It’s superficially satisfying, but it’s only pop psychology, a simplistic A to B relationship that doesn’t acknowledge the complicated way real trauma can manifest itself in a troubled psyche. The character is so little developed that later we see her happy for the first time, all her anger and mistrust disappeared, with no event depicted that could explain the full 180-degree turn.
For all its earnest intentions, and despite Riemann’s strong performance, the film doesn’t have the depth to match its subject. The Holocaust is more than a historical event, it is one of the most disturbing episodes in recent history, and it takes courage to begin to incorporate it into one’s art. But courage is not enough, nor good intentions. In the end, Rosenstrasse sinks beneath the weight of an event that is simply far too big for it.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()