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.