21 August 2004 | lawprof
A Reminder of "A Ray of Light" in an Awful Abyss
Berlin-born in 1942 Margarethe von Trotta was an actress and now she is a very important director and writer. She has been described, perhaps even unfairly caricatured, as a director whose commitment to bringing a woman's sensibility to the screen outweighs her artistic strengths. "Rosenstrasse," which has garnered mixed and even strange reviews (the New York Times article was one of the most negatively aggressive reviews I've ever read in that paper) is not a perfect film. It is a fine movie and a testament to a rare coalescing of successful opposition to the genocidal Nazi regime by, of all peoples, generically powerless Germans demonstrating in a Berlin street.
Co-writer von Trotta uses the actual Rosenstrasse incident in the context of a young woman's search for information about her mother's never disclosed life as a child in the German capital during World War II.
The husband of Ruth Weinstein (Jutta Lampe) has died and in a surprising reversion to an orthodox Jewish lifestyle apparently hitherto in long abeyance, Ruth not only "sits shivah" (the Jews' week-long mourning ritual) but she insists on following the strict proscriptions of her faith. Her apartment in New York City reflects the affluence secured by her deceased spouse's labors. Her American-born daughter, Hannah (Maria Schrader) and her brother are a bit put-off by mom's assumption of restrictive orthodox Jewish practices but they pitch in. The mother coldly rejects the presence of Hannah's fiance, a non-Jew named Luis (Fedja van Huet). A domestic crisis might well erupt as Ruth warns that she'll disown Hannah if she doesn't give up doting, handsome Luis. Stay tuned.
A cousin arrives to pay her respects and also drops clues to an interested Hannah about a wartime mystery about mom's childhood in Berlin. Hannah is intrigued - she queries her mom who resolutely refuses to discuss that part of her life. This is very, very realistic. I grew up with parents who fled Nazi Germany just in time and I knew many children whose families, in whole but usually in part, escaped the Holocaust. Those days were simply not discussed.
So Hannah, having learned that a German gentile woman saved Ruth's life, traipses off to Berlin hoping to find the savior still breathing. Were she not, this would have been a very short film. But Ruth, pretending to be a historian, locates 90 year-old Lena Fischer (Doris Schade), now a widow. As the happy-to-be-interviewed but shaken up by repressed memories Lena tells her story, the scenes shift fairly seamlessly between present day Berlin and the war-time capital.
The young Lena of 1943 (Katja Riemann) was a fine pianist married to a Jewish violinist, Fabian Fischer (Martin Feifel). With the advent of the Nazi regime he was required to use "Israel" as a middle name just as Jewish women had to add "Sarah" to their names(incidentally I wish IMDb had not given Fabian's name on its characters list with the false "Israel" included-it simply perpetuates a name applied by Nazis as a mark of classification and degradation).
While Germany deported most of its Jewish population to concentration camps, those married to "Aryans" were exempted. For a time. Until 1943 when the regime decided to take them too (most were men; a minority were Jewish women married to non-Jews). The roundup is shown here in all its frightening intensity.
The young Lena tries to locate her husband. All she and many other women know is that they're confined in a building on Rosenstrasse. The crowd of anxious women builds up, some piteously seeking help from German officers who predictably refuse aid and also verbally abuse them ("Jew-loving whore" being one appellation). As a subplot Lena more or less adopts eight-year-old Ruth who hid when her mother was seized (remember, Ruth is now sitting shiva in Manhattan). The child Ruth is fetchingly portrayed by Svea Lohde.
Through increasingly angry protestations the women finally prevail. The men, and a handful of women, are released. As in the real story the Nazis gave in, one of the rare, almost unprecedented times when the madmen acknowledged defeat in their homicidal agenda (another was the termination of the euthanasia campaign to rid the Reich of mental defectives and chronic invalids but that's another story).
Von Trotta builds up the tension and each woman's story is both personal and universal. Hannah continues to prod the aging Lena who slowly, one gathers, begins to suspect she's not dealing with an ordinary historian but rather someone with a need to learn about the girl she rescued, the child whose mother was murdered.
The contrasts between Rosenstrasse of 1943, a set, and the street today in a bustling, rebuilt, unified Berlin provide a recurring thematic element. Today's Berlin bears the heritage but not the scars of a monstrous past. Von Trotta makes that point very well.
The main actors are uniformly impressive. Lena's husband while strong is also shown as totally helpless in the snare of confinement with a likely outlook of deportation (which is shown to have been clearly understood by all characters - including the local police and military - as a one-way trip to oblivion). The older Ruth is catalytically forced to confront demons long suppressed in her happy New York life. Hannah is very believable as a young woman whose father's death triggers a need to discover her family's past. These things happen (although the Times's critic appears not to know that).
Von Trotta's hand is sure but not perfect. A scene with Goebbels at a soiree enjoying Lena's violin playing is unnecessary and distractive. The suggestion that she may have gone to bed with the propaganda minister, the most fanatical top-level Hitler worshiper, to save her husband detracts from the wondrous accomplishment of the demonstrating spouses and relatives. Most of the German officers come from central casting and are molded by the Erich von Stroheim "copy and paste" school of Teutonic nastiness. But that's understandable.
The Rosenstrasse story has been the subject of books and articles and some claim it's a paradigm case for arguing that many more Jews could have been saved had more Germans protested. Unfortunately that argument is nonsense. The German women who occupied Rosenstrasse were deeply and understandably self-interested. Most Germans were located on a line somewhere between passive and virulent anti-Semitism. THAT'S why the Rosenstrasse protest was virtually singular. Whether one buys or rejects the Goldenhagen thesis that most Germans were willing accomplices of the actual murderers it just can not be denied that pre-Nazi endemic anti-Semitism erupted into a virulent strain from 1933 on.
The elderly Lena remarks that what was accomplished by the women was "a ray of light" in an evil time. Most of the men and women sprung from a near death trip survived the war. So "a ray of light" it was and von Trotta's movie is a beacon of illumination showing that some were saved by the courage of largely ordinary women and for every life saved an occasion for celebration exists. And always will.