Part soap opera, part history lesson, part vital, and a little tedious, veteran director Margarethe von Trotta's Rosenstrasse illustrates an important standoff in World War II Berlin framed by -- and sometimes diluted by -- an unwieldy present-day scenario. It's relevant material, very much worth considering, and it may serve as a balm for many, yet as a film it often bogs down or resorts to leaden narrative heavy-handedness. This is the rare melodrama that would have benefited from more melodrama.
From the opening seconds, the project's themes are carved onto a sledgehammer en route to our skulls. A Jewish cemetery dissolves into the skyline of New York City, attended by musical passages seemingly lifted from a horror movie. The mood thus set, we enter the sad life of Ruth Weinstein (Jutta Lampe), a senior German immigrant whose husband has just died. To the confusion of her family and friends, the previously middle-of-the-road Ruth turns her posh home upside down with Orthodox Jewish rituals to mark the passing of her spouse. "Father used to cringe at Jews who suddenly discovered their Jewishness," remarks her frustrated daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader), but to no avail. Issues are coming up for Ruth.
This navel-gazing opening sequence makes the Douglas home movie It Runs in the Family suddenly feel jazzy, but in an icy-blue flashback we start to get the picture. Young Ruth (gracefully played by 8-year-old Svea Lohde) was but a child in Germany, circa 1943, and definitely a Nazi target. Her mother (Lena Stolze) gives her a ring that will carry symbolic heft all the way to the film's denouement, and then little Ruth is alone, amid scenarios deserving of the horror music from the first scene. Via constant intercutting to the present day, grown Hannah -- complete with distracting Latin fiance subplot -- learns from family friend Rachel Rosenbauer (Carola Regnier) a bit of what happened to her mother way back when.
A heroine emerges in the form of Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann), a gentile woman married to a Jewish musician named Fabian (Martin Feifel). The couple are shown raving up the wild '30s before the Nazi occupation, then catching hell from all angles thereafter. Undermined by her cold, conservative father, Lena becomes the guardian for young Ruth while Fabian is locked up among many other Jewish men in Rosenstrasse, a detention center in central Berlin and one of the better fates among the Nazi atrocities, reserved for captured Jews who have "intermarried." Interviewing the nonagenarian Lena (Doris Schade) in the present day, and revisiting the site, Hannah pieces together the misery of her mother's youth.
One of the best things von Trotta does here is to attack and neutralize bigotry. Gentile women have been called "dogs" in the Gospels, and the derogatory Yiddish word for them, shiksa, essentially translates to "vermin." Not so nice. Early on here, a Nazi officer calls Lena a "Jew-loving whore," and we quickly surmise that hatred and intolerance are diseases regardless of race, creed, upbringing, or ideological bent. As with Ben Hopkins' excellent Simon Magus, the director's agenda is to confront prejudice head-on to reveal a universal humanity.
The strange thing is that the crux of this film -- the gentile women's protest for the freedom of their Jewish husbands -- is given only adequate treatment. They chant a little in the freezing street, they courageously face the Nazis' big guns, and they flare up with hope when one of their husbands manages to appear briefly in a window. But this central confrontation is forced to play tug of war with far too much contemporary rumination via Hannah. Young co-writer Pamela Katz seems to have injected too much of her limited experience into this enterprise.
It is also unfortunate that von Trotta does not trust her audience enough to think for itself. She seems desperate to reveal that rhythmic black people are A-OK, or, as one character proclaims, that "Jewish men are so gentle" -- a notion obviously gleaned from Howard Stern's Butt Bongo Fiesta. Also, her Nazis here are not merely monsters -- they're all raving assholes. They taunt and bully everybody to the point of caricature, which doesn't benefit the story or increase the horror. Even a half-ounce of ambivalence toward these devils would have helped. Well, she does offer up one semicompassionate Nazi guard out on the street. His name is Willie, not unlike the character Robert Englund played among the reptilian extraterrestrial pseudo-Nazis in the television series V. His function is the same, too: Help a little, but not enough.
Rosenstrasse represents an important chapter in the struggle for justice, and it contains scenes of great poignancy that can enhance our understanding of the madness that gripped Europe not long ago. Unfortunately these scenes are mired in a thudding overall presentation. Von Trotta's vision of compassion is clear from the get-go, but over two hours later she's still hammering home a point that was already abundantly clear when the lights went down.
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