“Germans wanted to believe that nobody could do anything against the Nazis,” said Margarethe von Trotta, the eminent Berlin-born filmmaker whose new film based on the events, titled “Rosenstrasse,” is set to open in New York on August 20 with a special screening scheduled for August 16 at the Center for Jewish History. “If all people are guilty, you know, no one is guilty. That’s why the story of Rosenstrasse is not so well known.”
Equal parts love story, Holocaust drama and child-of-survivor piece, this movie marks for von Trotta, who at 62 still can recall the blare of sirens from childhood, the next stop in a trajectory of films — including “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (1975), “Marianne and Juliane” (1981) and “Rosa Luxemburg” (1986) — in which she has attempted to deal with her country’s history bravely and honestly.
A film dramatizing such an act of defiance does not get an automatic green light in Germany’s film industry, which, like the culture at large, has been reticent about its own personal story, a point of frustration for von Trotta.
In 1993, director Volker Schlondorff, von Trotta’s former husband and writing collaborator, introduced her to Daniela Schmidt, who had made a documentary called “Resistance in Rosenstrasse, Berlin 1943.” Von Trotta immediately knew she could tell a fictionalized version in a feature-length film. A copious researcher, she met with the surviving German women as well as with scholars, including American historian Nathan Stoltzfus, author of “Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany” (W.W. Norton, 1996). Another documentary, “Liberation from Rosenstrasse” (1994), by Michael Muschner, whose mother had been imprisoned at Rosenstrasse, gave her the idea to construct a script around a handful of people, notably Lena Fischer, the Aryan woman who hid a Jewish child named Ruth.
Initially she could not raise the money for her script. In 1994, the period after Germany’s reunification, audiences were eager only for comedies, said von Trotta. But when she tried again in 2001, there was an interest and a possibility. Rosenstrasse’s producer, Richard Schops, heartened by the success of his 1999 Holocaust film, “Gloomy Sunday,” felt assured that another film set during the war had a chance to be made. And, noted von Trotta, in the aftermath of September 11, several books came out about people who saved Jews. “Germans never had the courage to speak about that before,” she said.
Still, a new script was needed. In the next version, co-authored by New York writer Pamela Katz, the central Rosenstrasse story is folded into that of a present-day young woman in New York who discovers her mother’s link to the historic events of 1943. Like many children of survivors, this character never has been told about her mother’s past. Compelled by a mysterious woman and a photograph, she travels to Berlin and finds the woman who protected her mother.
A wave of awards and controversy has followed the European release of “Rosenstrasse.” In Germany, word of mouth calls the film “sentimental,” read: “Oh no, not that again,” a dismissal reserved for Holocaust films that pit the good guys against the bad. But the media raised the film’s profile. One polemical condemnation, titled, “Kitsch, Klamotte, Klitterei” (Kitsch, Rags, Distorting History), published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung (September 18, 2003), repeats the party’s wartime cover-up, maintaining Rosenstrasse as a nonevent. While no one doubted that a public demonstration by Aryan women took place, newspapers reported that Germans quibbled with the idea that the protest at Rosenstrasse actually led to the release of the men.
Von Trotta stands by her research, and is especially certain of the testimony given to her by the women who were there. As for the film’s “historical truth,” The published diaries of Joseph Goebbel, the Nazi in command in Berlin, show that he considered the crowd at Rosenstrasse an unpleasant scene he wished to avoid and ordered that the evacuation cease.
At a recent Brandeis University screening, the filmmaker was asked why she made the movie. “Must I answer this question?” she asked, balking before changing her mind. “Because I am German, I have to make these movies.”