Ordinary Women Accomplish the Extraordinary

Lena Fisher (Katja Riemann) is introduced to Joseph Goebbels (Martin Wuttke), 
Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda,
in a crucial scene from 
Margarethe von Trotta’s new film ROSENSTRASSE.

Photos courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films


In the United States we are inundated with stories about the Holocaust, from Oscar-winners like THE PIANIST to routine episodes of LAW & ORDER. Not so Germany, where the subject still triggers painful debates about guilt and complicity. Now ROSENSTRASSE, the new film by acclaimed director Margarethe von Trotta, tells a story almost no one has heard of, just when we were beginning to think we’d heard them all.

Margarethe von Trotta achieved international fame in the late 60s as the star of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff, then established herself as one of Europe’s most respected woman directors. Her protagonists are typically women forced into active protest by historical circumstance. So von Trotta occupies a unique position; she is an activist, a feminist, and a German intellectual, born in Berlin in 1942 and raised in heart of Hell itself. We have never seen the Holocaust from this point of view before.

The character at the center of ROSENSTRASSE is a young New Yorker from a prosperous Jewish family named Hannah. Her father has just died, and she reaches out to her mother Ruth for comfort, but Ruth withdraws into herself. A woman tries to speak with Ruth at the shiva, but Ruth rejects her. Hannah hardly knows this cousin, but appeals to her anyway for an explanation of her mother’s behavior. Ruth’s cousin asks Hannah if she knows anything about a German woman named Lena. No, she does not. But Hannah becomes convinced that only knowledge of Ruth’s childhood will bring her mother back to her, and so she flies to Berlin in search of answers.

When Hannah finds her, Lena is ninety years old and still living in Berlin. Hannah does not reveal her identity, she simply tells Lena she’s a journalist researching the Holocaust, and pulls out her tape recorder. Lena, alone in her little apartment, is happy to oblige. In her mind’s eye, Lena returns to 1943. She is young and beautiful, an Aryan woman deeply in love with her Jewish husband, Fabian Fisher. Over several days of increasing intimacy, Lena tells Hannah her whole story.


Posing as a journalist, Hannah (Maria Schrader)
Lena (Doris Schade) in her Berlin apartment.

  Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.


When Fabian suddenly disappears, Lena tracks him to the Rosenstrasse, a side street in central Berlin that houses a Jewish social service office. Even though the Jewish spouses of German citizens are supposed to be exempt from deportation, a rumor quickly passes from family to family — their missing relatives are being detained in the Rosenstrasse building. And so, day-by-day, the number of people congregating on the Rosenstrasse grows. Lena takes pity on a young girl named Ruth whose mother has also been arrested. Only eight years old with nowhere else to go, Ruth, like her Biblical namesake, cleaves to Lena, goes where she goes, moves in with her.

Most of the historical details in ROSENSTRASSE can also be found in the book RESISTANCE OF THE HEART: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany by Nathan Stoltzfus, a Harvard-trained historian who currently teaches 20th Century European History at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Stoltzfus and von Trotta did much of their research concurrently and used many of the same sources, including women with histories very similar to Lena’s and Ruth’s. While von Trotta has undoubtedly taken dramatic liberties in filming this story, the driving fact is this: Jewish spouses were interned by the Nazis, and were eventually freed after their German relatives staged a public protest.


Lena (Katja Riemann) and Ruth (Svea Lohde) join the Rosenstrasse protest in 1943. Katja Riemann was named Best Actress at the 2003 Venice International Film Festival.

Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

This description of the Holocaust is a real departure from the familiar German disavowal of either knowledge or responsibility. On the one hand no one in Rosenstrasse pretends that deportation is anything other than a death sentence. On the other hand the principal characters, the women who gather on the street, all know that they are German citizens and therefore feel entitled to protest.

Lena comes from a prominent family and her brother, recently returned from Stalingrad, is a Wehrmacht officer. Their connections combined with her aristocratic beauty and his battle wounds enable them to plead their case directly to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. While the actual party scene at which this climactic encounter occurs may be artistic license, the historical record affirms the fact that Goebbels ordered the release of the prisoners because he was afraid of the power of public protest.

Von Trotta clearly wants the German people to face up to their complicity once and for all, to stop saying “We didn’t know,” or “There was nothing we could do.” Most people did know what was happening and could have protested if they had wanted to. (In AMEN, released in 2002 and now available on DVD, director Costa-Gavras makes the same point. When “good German citizens” learned that their mentally handicapped relatives were targets, they protested and the euthanasia stopped.)

Given the recent rise in anti-Semitism, this is an important message for Europeans to hear. Whatever their objections to the State of Israel, Europeans cannot pretend that once the scourge of Nazism was defeated, Jewish survivors could simply have “returned home” to their otherwise friendly neighbors in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere (the despicable message of both NOWHERE IN AFRICA and THE PIANIST). There are good reasons why the majority of survivors chose to leave Europe and build new lives for themselves, for the most part in Israel.

But what is the message for Americans? In ROSENSTRASSE, Ruth moves to the United States after the war because that’s where her relatives are. She represses her early life and becomes a successful American wife and mother — until her husband’s death causes her to feel deserted once again by someone she’s loved and trusted. But does this make Ruth just “a victim”? If Lena is a lonely old woman when Hannah finds her, isn’t Ruth herself also guilty of abandoning Lena? Of course as a child, Ruth could do nothing. But if Ruth continues to act out the grievances of a child long after she’s become an adult, is she acting responsibly in her new life?

The painful facts of the Holocaust have caused many Jewish Americans to nurse feelings of victimization. ROSENSTRASSE is an opportunity to see shades of gray in many things we thought were black and white.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (9/1/04)


Click here to read Jan’s Chat with Pamela Katz (ROSENSTRASSE’s screenwriter). 

Click here to read Jan’s 10th Anniversary Tribute to SCHINDLER’S LIST. 

Click here to read more about Jan’s concerns about NOWHERE IN AFRICA & THE PIANIST. 




Special Addendum for FF2
by Max Gross (8/19/04)

Meyer Gottlieb, the president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, was in no mood to take criticism of Holocaust movies. As the film executive strode to the stage at New York's Leo Baeck Institute on Monday night for a special screening of the new World War II film, ROSENSTRASSE, he was filled with anger.

"In my recent [conversations] with the media I heard that there was a 'Holocaust overload,'" Gottlieb, a child survivor, told the sold out audience. "I was shocked. But my shock turned to anger."

"Editors told me, 'The Holocaust is no longer newsworthy,'" Gottlieb said. "Just look at our daily press reports! The media has a responsibility to write and talk about the Holocaust."

"To the media [I say], 'Never forget.' We will not let you forget."

Last week the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER wrote about the difficulties a Holocaust film like ROSENSTRASSE might have competing with other small independent films like FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and SUPER SIZE ME. "On the indie film scene," Gregg Kilday wrote, "foreign-language films are hardly an endangered species. But they have taken a back seat of late to the renewed vogue for documentaries spearheaded by FAHRENHEIT 9/11."

But few people who attended a screening of ROSENSTRASSE at the Leo Baeck Institute seemed to care about the economics. A crowd of mostly middle aged Jews--both religious and secular--packed every seat in the house, and a handful waited outside on the off chance that there would be spare tickets.

Margarethe von Trotta's ROSENSTRASSE concerns a little known episode of German history when the Jewish husbands of Aryan women were rounded up by the Gestapo and detained in a Jewish community center. The wives of these Jewish men waited outside the de facto prison, lobbying the German soldiers and pulling political strings, until their husbands were released. ROSENSTRASSE, which was in the works for ten years before it reached the screen, fictionalizes the story of Lena (Katja Riemann) an aristocrat who joins the crowd, lobbying her brother's army friends for her husband’s release, and adopting an orphaned Jewish child along the way.

When the movie ended Gottlieb and screenwriter Pamela Katz took the stage for a question and answer session. Most people praised the film, but the audience at the Leo Baeck Institute was hardly typical in building a summer blockbuster. The larger question remains: Is there a glut of Holocaust movies?

"We have to be careful in general" making those estimations, said Dr. Hans-Dieter Stell, the German Deputy Consul General at the UN who attended the screening. "You don't have any--or hardly any--objective criteria [for], 'What is enough?'"

When ROSENSTRASSE was released in Germany last year, it was widely discussed. "Whenever this [a new movie about the Holocaust] comes out, it is openly and widely discussed in DER SPIEGEL, magazines, TV and so on," Dr. Stell said in a follow-up interview on Wednesday.

For Germans ROSENSTRASSE was distinct from most Holocaust movies. "In Germany it... [raised] the question, to what extent resistance was possible [and the] larger effect on saving more Jews," said Dr. Stell.

Moreover, the character of Lena is the hero of the film; something that is often appealing for Germans. In most films "Jewry is seen as the victims, the soldiers and army as rude and brutal oppressors," said Dr. Stell. Seeing a German hero "breaks up the cliches of black and white... This showed a bit more of the human face."

Annette Insdorf, author of INDELIBLE SHADOWS: FILM AND THE HOLOCAUST (now in its third edition) and director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, also spoke on Monday night. In her remarks before the screening, she noted that ROSENSTRASSE hits on three extremely important themes of Holocaust literature: resistance to the Nazis, hidden children, and the attempt of a child of survivors to piece together a parent’s holocaust past – particularly when the parent has been secretive about it.

In their remarks on Monday night, Insdorf and screenwriter Katz both noted that the film is also extremely feminist and modern. “The film’s events are set in motion by women,” Insdorf said. “The addition of the [present day narrative] adds a degree of truth. Instead of the Holocaust tale unfolding ‘objectively’ we see it through the memory of a particular woman who lived through it.”

"I don't believe there can be too many Holocaust films--as long as they are good!" said Professor Insdorf in a follow-up e-mail message. "While it is true that the Holocaust has moved from being a commercially 'taboo' subject to a viable one – especially after SCHINDLER’S LIST – the subject includes more dramatic stories than the cinema could ever encompass. For example, I do not believe there has been a glut of films about rescue or resistance, which makes ROSENSTRASSE a desirable addition to the genre of Holocaust cinema."

“Fortunately,” Insdorf added, “most Holocaust-related films are not big-budget, which means that they do not have to reach a mass audience. If a film like ROSENSTRASSE appeals to an art-house crowd in major cities, it can do reasonably well. I am delighted that the audience for documentaries has been growing, but do not believe that prevents a film like ROSENSTRASSE from attracting viewers. There are moments when we want good fiction films too!”

Katz was hired as a writer on the project after the historical part of film was already written. She expanded the story by starting it off with a young New York woman searching for her mother's story in modern Germany, touching on what Insdorf said was one of the great themes of Holocaust cinema: a child searching for a parent’s past.

Might this make the film more palatable to a modern, American audience?

For the most part, audience members at the Leo Baeck Institute seemed to approve of the film. However, someone asked Katz if the film didn't "Maximize the heroism [of the time] which is infinitesimal?"

Katz acknowledged that ROSENSTRASSE dealt with a very small pocket of resistance.” Then she quoted a line from the movie. "This was a triumph," Katz said, "but it was only a tiny ray of light in the darkness."


Brooklyn-based writer Max Gross is a frequent contributor
He can be reached at Max.Gross@alum.Dartmouth.org.



Jan's article is a slightly expanded version
of the review originally published
in the September 2004 edition of the
(Volume 1 Number 12) 
& is posted here with their permission.

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I was wrong about this. Von Trotta interviewed many of the Rosenstrasse survivors on her own, and she wrote the first drafts of the screenplay long before reading Stoltzfus’ book. Their research was therefore simultaneous.

Now that both works (the book and the film) are commercially available, Stoltzfus and von Trotta are publicly supportive of each other and sometimes appear in joint presentations. For example, when NPR’s Pat Dowell broadcast her feature on the LA premiere of ROSENSTRASSE, she interviewed both Stoltzfus and von Trotta.

I am grateful to screenwriter Pamela Katz for setting me straight on this point. According to Pam: “We are all fans of Nathan’s book!”