LOS ANGELES, Aug. 12 (JTA) — It took noted director/writer Margarethe von Trotta, who has chronicled the story of 20th century Germany in such films as “Rosa Luxemburg” and “The Pledge,” some 10 years to complete the cycle by documenting her country’s “darkest period” in “Rosenstrasse.” While staying true to the basic facts, she has dramatized the story of the only known successful internal public protest against Nazi rule by telling it largely through the eyes of a young American Jewish woman, Hannah Weinstein (Maria Schrader). As a young child, Hannah’s mother was an eyewitness to the Rosenstrasse drama but had never talked about her past, so the daughter travels to present-day Berlin to track down the family history. There Hannah encounters an old woman, Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann), who recounts the events in black-and-white flashbacks. In early 1943, the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, decided to “avenge” the German defeat at Stalingrad by making Berlin completely “Judenrein.” On Feb. 27, the Gestapo and SS rounded up the last 5,000 Jewish men, and some women, still living legally in the German capital. They had been spared deportation up to that point because they were married to “Aryans” or had a non-Jewish parent. Before sending them on to Auschwitz, some of the Jews were held at the former Jewish Community Welfare Office on Rosenstrasse. The next morning, a few dozen Aryan wives of the imprisoned Jews stood in the cold outside the Rosenstrasse building, demanding the release of their husbands. The next day, the protesters were joined by a hundred more women and a few men, including one in a German army uniform. By the sixth day, close to a thousand took part in the vigil, and when an SS contingent trained machine guns on the protestors, they screamed back “murderers” and did not move. On the seventh day, Goebbels gave in. He ordered the Jews to be released to their families, including 25 men who had already been sent to Auschwitz. Lena, who had horrified her aristocratic German family by marrying a Jewish violinist, became one of the first protesters at Rosenstrasse when her husband is arrested. The film is quite slow-paced but it catches the grim, oppressive atmosphere of wartime Berlin, just undergoing its first massive British air raid. Von Trotta also exposes the luxurious wartime lifestyle of the Nazi elite when Lena, as the beautiful blonde baroness, attends a party in a desperate attempt to charm Goebbels into releasing her husband. During a brief visit to Los Angeles, von Trotta speculated on what gave a few hundred German housewives the moral backbone to defy the Nazi rulers in the midst of war. “I have talked to some of the women who were among the protestors, and none considered herself a heroine,” she said. “They were impelled by the courage of despair.” Questioned on the continued focus of German and American filmmakers on the Nazi and Holocaust eras, von Trotta responded, “Hitler said that his Reich would last a thousand years. We have to remember his crimes for the next thousand years." The film opens Aug. 20 in New York and Los Angeles and subsequently in other major cities.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.