In 1943, for one week in Berlin, the Aryan wives of Jewish husbands stood outside a collection center on a street called Rosenstrasse, where they demonstrated against the detention of their spouses until they were, miraculously, released.
It's a great story, one that deserves better than "Rosenstrasse," Margarethe von Trotta's fictionalized version of a tale that needs no such dramatic gilding. As with so many fictional treatments of World War II and the Holocaust, this is pinched between its own noble intentions and artistic meekness, resulting in a movie in which an extraordinary collective act of moral and physical courage is relegated to a backdrop for a mushy, synthetic family melodrama.
It's easy to see why von Trotta was attracted to the Rosenstrasse story. On Feb. 27, 1943, about 5,000 Berlin Jews were arrested and interned, including Jews from "intermarriages," who had previously been categorized as "Aryans by marriage." The next day, women began to gather outside the Rosenstrasse detainment center, their numbers eventually swelling to hundreds. As they continued to bear their mostly silent witness, the Nazi leadership could see it had a public relations disaster on its hands, and one week after the first men were arrested, Joseph Goebbels released them, even bringing back some who had been deported to Auschwitz.
These events are for the most part faithfully recounted in "Rosenstrasse," albeit with the same theatrical distance that characterizes too many Holocaust dramas. But, presumably as a sop to contemporary audiences, von Trotta has bracketed the historical events in a prolonged present-day story, wherein the grown daughter of a Holocaust survivor goes back to Berlin to meet the woman who saved her mother's life.
That guardian angel is named Lena, and she is played as a young woman by the radiant Katja Riemann, who infuses her character with just the right amount of beguiling spirit and, eventually, desperation. Lena is one of the women of Rosenstrasse, and when she befriends an 8-year-old girl named Ruth (Svea Lohde), whose mother has also been arrested, it will change both their lives forever. At times reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica's "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" in its depiction of aristocrats benumbed by their new murderous realities, "Rosenstrasse" is at its best when it's evoking Lena's cosmopolitan world and her eventual alienation from its insular ether of denial.
Unfortunately, for all the power and emotion of the scenes inside and outside the Rosenstrasse center, the story of Lena and Ruth, as well as their respective family struggles with betrayal and abandonment, is portrayed with the melodrama and heightened visual and emotional pitch of 1950s melodramatist Douglas Sirk. Although most of her overdramatizations are relatively harmless, von Trotta reaches the limit of her creative license when she has Lena sleep with an almost visibly salivating Goebbels in order to free her husband. It's one more unnecessary, but particularly offensive, piece of speculation in a story where the facts should surely have been allowed to speak for themselves.
Rosenstrasse (136 minutes, in German with subtitles, at the Avalon, Cinema Arts Theatre and the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7) is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some violence and brief drug content.