Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Written by Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Svea Lohde
Starring Jutta Lampe, Maria Schrader, Svea Lohde
Rating: * *
There weren't many "small rays of light in the darkness" that was Nazi Germany, but this movie depicts one of them - namely, the public protest by thousands of so-called Aryans, mostly women, to have their Jewish spouses released from Berlin detention centres after having been rounded up in February, 1943, for deportation to concentration camps.
It's a little known episode of what might be called "accidental heroism" in the face of Hitler's death machine. Accidental in the sense that the protest - which, after a vigil lasting almost 10 days, resulted in the release of most of the detainees - was motivated by the bonds of blood and familial affection, not "impersonal" altruism or political activism.
It's an episode, too, of clearly great filmic potential. Indeed, Sharon Stone was reportedly interested in doing a version of the story at one point. But this potential, sadly, is largely unrealized here by veteran German director Margarethe von Trotta and her co-screenwriter Pamela Katz. Rather than dealing with the story head on, von Trotta and Katz use fictionalized representatives of three generations to interweave narratives of present and past, constantly shuttling the viewer from contemporary Manhattan to both modern and Second World War Berlin and back.
The film starts with Ruth, a 60-year-old former Berliner (Jutta Lampe), sitting shiva in her New York apartment for her deceased husband. Until this point, this Jewish woman has lived a mostly secularized life but now, much to the chagrin of her thirtysomething daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader), she's determined to observe seemingly every Jewish ritual of mourning. Ruth also thinks Hannah should break off her long engagement to Luis, a non-Jew from Nicaragua.
A series of flashbacks ensues, taking us back to 1943 Berlin when the then eight-year-old Ruth (Svea Lohde), the dark-haired offspring of a "mixed marriage," discovers that her Jewish mother has been arrested by the Nazis.
Eventually, the young Ruth is taken under the wing of Lena Fischer, an aristocratic Aryan (Katja Riemann, all blond hair, white skin, ample bosom, with pianistic talent to boot) whose husband, a Jewish violinist, has been hauled into a detention centre on Rosenstrasse.
Meanwhile, in the present, Hannah becomes determined to root out her mother's "peculiar" behaviour and secret past. She travels to Berlin where, in the guise of a researcher preparing a book on mixed marriages in the Third Reich, she begins to interview the now 90-year-old Lena (Doris Schade), conversations which, in turn, trigger still more flashbacks.
Confusing? Somewhat. But Rosenstrasse's main problems don't arise from the complexity of its structure (complexity, after all, is not intrinsically a vice) or from its length (a hefty 136 minutes). Rather, for all the acting strengths of its cast and the evocative cinematography of Ranz Rath, Rosenstrasse suffers because it is insufficiently complex emotionally.
Von Trotta skims when she should be bearing down; tidies up when situations should be allowed to get much messier. In the end, this tale of human decency fails to make you feel enough.