“Rosenstrasse” might be described as a female variant of “Schindler’s List,” though told on a far smaller scale (it would be a list of two, actually) and, to be honest, with far less emotional impact. Margarethe von Trotta’s film is based on an actual incident that occurred in Berlin in mid-1943, when the tide of war had turned decisively against Germany. The Jewish husbands of Aryan wives, long relatively safe because of their marital status, were rounded up for deportation in one of the last gasps of the Final Solution. But in a rare display of public opposition to the regime, their spouses demonstrated outside the building where they were being held (on Rosenstrasse), and–in one of the few instances when the Nazis back down in the face of such pressure–the men were eventually released.
This inspiring and little-known story is told from the perspective of one of the wives, Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann), a daughter of the old aristocracy who’s also and accomplished pianist and beautiful to boot–a triple threat that earns her entree even to a party where the honored guest is none other than Josef Goebbels himself, whom she can lobby for her husband’s freedom. (As played by Martin Wuttke, the Nazi minister is smoother than the real article, but the lascivious look in his eye during the encounter seems right on.) Lena’s brother, a wounded veteran of the eastern front, meanwhile pulls strings elsewhere in the military establishment, though without success. As the demonstration continues and Lena’s husband Fabian (Martin Feifel) remains incommunicado, Lena also virtually adopts Ruth (Svea Lohde) a young Jewish girl she wandering the streets after her mother has been detained. Lena and Fabian, once he’s released, will conceal the youngster, eventually sending her off to America.
The episode on which “Rosenstrasse” is based is a fascinating one, and potentially the stuff of powerful drama. But von Trotta blunts the impact in a number of ways. First, she stages the story in so reticent and decorous a tone, apparently aiming for style above all else, that the picture is sapped of energy even though it looks quite wonderful. (Heike Bauersfeld;s production design and Ursula Eggert’s costumes recreate the period very well, and Jan Betke’s cinematography is elegantly atmospheric.) Second, she and co-writer Pamela Katz have constructed the piece as a contemporary investigation, with Hannah (Maria Schrader), Ruth’s present-day American daughter, looking into her mother’s past after her father’s death. She locates the elderly Lena (Doris Schade) and gently queries her about her wartime experiences without revealing her identity. The main narrative is thus related through a sequence of flashbacks, and the constant cutting between the present and 1943 makes for considerable choppiness and a distinct loss of momentum, even though both Riemann and Schade register strongly as the younger and older versions of Lena. It’s the contemporary material, especially the lengthy prologue set in New York, that comes across as stilted and pedestrian beside the flashback story.
Among Holocaust stories, in terms of effect “Rosenstrasse” falls fairly emphatically in the middle of the road.