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Wartime grief, women's heroism in 'Rosenstrasse'

August 20, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Margarethe von Trotta's splendid "Rosenstrasse" takes its title from an old street in Berlin yet opens in New York, circa 2000. By the time it's over it has spanned six decades and a complex emotional terrain. It's an intimate film, with only several key locales, yet it possesses epic sweep and scope. "Rosenstrasse" finds Von Trotta, the New German Cinema pioneer noted for "Rosa Luxemburg," "Marianne and Juliane" and many others, in full command of her medium.

In her handsome Manhattan high-rise apartment, Ruth Weinstein (Jutta Lampe), an attractive woman of 60 who has just lost her husband, begins intense preparations for a traditional period of Jewish mourning, much to the puzzlement of her adult children. The family has been nonobservant, and now Ruth is telling her daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader) that if she marries her non-Jewish Nicaraguan fiance (Fedja van Huet), she will disown her.

"Rosenstrasse" reveals why the traumatic loss of her husband has triggered Ruth's sudden fierce embrace of the religion of her childhood. Ruth will not or perhaps cannot explain her behavior, but her cousin (Carola Regnier) shows up to pay her respects and offers Hannah enough information to send her off to Berlin in search of a 90-year-old woman named Lena Fischer (Doris Schade).

As Ruth single-mindedly continues her preparations, she is overcome with a flow of memories she would certainly stem if she could. They take her back to Berlin in late February 1943, the day that, as instructed, she hid behind a bathroom door while the Gestapo took away her mother, Miriam (Lena Stolze), to Rosenstrasse, the site of a Jewish welfare center that had been turned into a prison for detainees. On Rosenstrasse, Ruth (Svea Lohde), then 8, encounters Lena (Katja Riemann), then 33.

In the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Lena, a beautiful concert pianist from an aristocratic family, had married a handsome concert violinist, Fabian Fischer (Martin Feifel). They were a happy, golden couple even though Lena's parents had disowned her for marrying a Jew. Now Lena joins an increasingly large and vocal band of Aryan wives protesting their husbands' imprisonment on Rosenstrasse.

Von Trotta and her co-writer, Pamela Katz, have taken an incident virtually forgotten until recent years: As World War II broke out, Jews who had Aryan spouses were at first not subject to deportation, but in early 1943 the Gestapo started rounding up Jews who had previously been protected by their marriages. The filmmakers have created a group of entirely credible individuals, most importantly Lena, Ruth and Hannah, and imagined how the wives' protest at Rosenstrasse changed their lives and their relations with each other. Because the Rosenstrasse incident and its resolution is so unfamiliar, especially to American audiences, Von Trotta is able to generate considerable suspense to propel her far-ranging plot.

When Lena is not standing in protest on Rosenstrasse, she and her brother, Arthur (Jurgen Vogel), an officer recently wounded at Stalingrad, pull all the strings they can to win Fabian's freedom. Moving to the near-present, Von Trotta makes the audience wonder what Hannah will learn from the elderly Lena about Ruth and even how and why her mother came to America -- and, in turn, what answers Lena may have that may or may not be of comfort to Ruth in her current state of grief.

Riemann has emerged as a top German star in recent years, and while she is known in the U.S. mainly as a gifted comedian, she reveals a persuasive steely strength as a woman prepared to do whatever it takes to save her husband. Schade is a remarkable match physically to Riemann as the much older -- but no less strong -- Lena, a woman who never lost her capacity for kindness and concern for others. Riemann and Schade set a high standard with their exemplary, beautifully matched portrayals of Lena, yet not only Schrader and Lempe but also a large cast in its entirety live up to the challenge.

Inevitably, Lena's encounters with the German military on behalf of her husband seem all too familiar in their nastiness and cruelty, but Von Trotta also is careful to show some Germans as humane and even sympathetic to the wives' plight, though too terrified to act. But most important is the film's consistent unexpectedness. "Rosenstrasse" captures well not only the varying states of mind and levels of awareness in Germany during World War II but also the era's lingering effect upon its survivors. Franz Rath's cinematography and Loek Dikker's score richly enhance the shifting eras, locales and moods of "Rosenstrasse" and help make it the fully realized film that it is.



MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, some violence and brief drug content

Times guidelines: Adult themes, too intense for children

Katja Riemann...Lena Fischer at 33

Maria Schrader...Hannah Weinstein

Doris Schade...Lena Fischer at 90

Jutta Lampe...Ruth Weinstein at 60

Svea Lohde...Ruth Weinstein at 8

A Samuel Goldwyn release of a Concorde-Film presentation. Director Margarethe von Trotta. Producers Richard Schops, Henrik Meyer, Markus Zimmer. Screenplay Margarethe von Trotta and Pamela Katz. Cinematographer Franz Rath. Editor Corina Dietz. Music Loek Dikker. Costumes Ursula Eggert. Production designer Heike Bauersfeld. In German with English subtitles.

At selected theaters.

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