Rosenstrasse marks the return to film after nearly a decade in television of Margarethe von Trotta, the best-known woman director to emerge from the New German Cinema movement. It dramatizes a rarely documented moment of German protest against the Nazi regime that occurred in Berlin in 1943 when the Gestapo arrested Jewish men married to Aryan women and placed them in a holding area in a building on Rosenstrasse, a small street near Alexanderplatz. As the days passed, the wives gathered in increasing numbers to keep vigil and would not be driven away.
Here is the kernel for an unusual and wrenching Holocaust story. But von Trotta embalms it in a hokey and tedious framing device in a clumsy attempt to add an inspirational contemporary spin. Bumpily paced, it’s overlong and freighted with a soppy, manipulative musical score. The movie kicks off in present-day New York, where a Jewish family in mourning for its patriarch is jolted when the widow chases her daughter’s non-Jewish fiancé from the house and forbids her to marry the guy. Daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader) then discovers to her amazement that as a child, Mama had been saved and cared for by an Aryan woman during the war, after she lost her parents. Hannah hastens to Berlin and hunts down the noble nonagenarian, Lena (Doris Schade), who proves fecund with flashbacks. Lena (played as a young woman by Katja Riemann) had alienated her own aristocratic family by marrying a Jewish musician. In order to rescue him, she dons her sexiest party dress and makes out with Propaganda Minister Goebbels. Then, voilà!—doors open on Rosenstrasse and Jewish detainees are released, and von Trotta’s sober chronicle devolves into just another kitschy-campy tall tale.
Riemann received the Venice Film Festival’s Best Actress award for her work in it. A lovely performance, restrained and graceful, but it can’t save the picture.