SOMETIMES HEROISM is simply doing what one cannot help doing. That's the message of "Rosenstrasse," a modest yet moving fact-based drama about a group of Aryan German women who, in the winter of 1943, quietly but insistently demanded that their Jewish husbands be returned to them from incarceration by the Nazis.
How did they accomplish this? According to Margarethe von Trotta's methodical and un-maudlin film, for the most part they did little except to wait outside the building in which their spouses had been detained ("Rosenstrasse" takes its name from the street on which that building, a Jewish social services facility-turned-prison, stood). Other than that, one or two would occasionally shout "Give me back my husband!" in the faces of the not entirely unsympathetic guards. Hardly a chant, really. Just a random rising of voices that would now and then swell and then die down to an impotent murmur. Sometimes the gaggle of women would be deliberately forced off the pavement by careering trucks or other military vehicles. Once, in the film's most dramatic scene, the women face down a couple of machine guns that have been set up outside the entrance (and quickly dismantled when that scare tactic failed).
On another occasion, one of the women -- the aristocratic main character, Lena, played by a radiantly stoic Katja Riemann -- uses her beauty and family connections to ply Joseph Goebbels, without much apparent success, at a party.
That's it, pretty much.
They didn't alert the media, carry signs or throw things. They went to Rosenstrasse every day (and most nights), simply because they couldn't conceive of not going there -- just as Lena instinctively takes in a young Jewish girl (Svea Lohde), whose mother has also been imprisoned. After all, she can't just leave her on the street, can she?
The story of that little girl, Ruth, whose life ultimately is saved by Lena, frames the film, which is told in flashback, beginning with the funeral, in a modern-day Manhattan, of adult Ruth's (Jutta Lampe) husband. Born in the United States, Ruth's grown daughter, Hannah (Maria Schrader), learns of Lena's existence from a guest at the funeral and travels to Berlin to track Lena down and hear her story.
At times, "Rosenstrasse" (co-written by von Trotta with Pamela Katz) seems needlessly layered. Why bury the story of the women of Rosenstrasse inside Ruth's story?
And yet, the tale of Lena and the women's heroism has larger resonance, even in Hannah's life and in her troubled relationship with her mother, who disapproves of Hannah's non-Jewish fiance (Fedja van Huet). And yes, a long-buried secret will be revealed that gives Hannah insight into her mother's recalcitrance.
"Rosenstrasse," you see, is really as much about the legacy of pain as it is about a single historic act of courage. The film, whose name translates as Rose Street, or Street of Roses, feels like the petal of a flower that has been thrown into the water of a stagnant pond, and whose beautiful, concentric ripples travel outward across oceans and down through generations to heal old wounds.
ROSENSTRASSE (PG-13, 136 minutes) -- Contains ugly anti-Semitism and the ever-present threat of violence. In German with subtitles. At the Avalon and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.