Berlin’s Small Ray Of Light In The Darkness
The best movies, as all good works of art, pepper us with insistent questions. Can we empathize equally with the Jewish and non-Jewish characters in Rosenstrasse, a new film from Margarethe von Trotta? Do we believe there were “Good Germans” in wartime Berlin? Does it matter that a group of German women risked their lives to save their Jewish spouses in the midst of the Holocaust? And finally, do we care exactly how we remember any of this? After viewing this film, the answers seem simple.
Based on an actual event in 1943, this beautifully crafted German language film does not pretend to preach about the Holocaust or the treacherous waters of German-Jewish relations. What it does suggest is that simple decency, like that between husband and wife, can rise to heroism when all other values seem to be evaporating. It is a story embedded in a terrible past that resonates eerily in the present.
The movie opens in a contemporary New York apartment where a family is sitting shiva. Hannah (Maria Schrader) comments that her mother, Ruth Weinstein (Jutte Lampe) is acting “suddenly Jewish” in mourning the death of her totally secular husband Robert. Visitors arrive to pay their respects and observe an approximation of Jewish mourning. Little details like everyone taking off their shoes, a prohibition of phone use for seven days and no one speaking at all seem out of place, skewed. Ruth’s sudden flashbacks to her childhood, fleeing arrest in Berlin, further complicate the deep and pervasive sense of mourning in the present. Hannah is puzzled by her mother’s actions. Why are the rites of Jewish mourning suddenly so important to her? Why does her pain seem more from the past than the present loss?
We are brought back to Berlin with haunting cinematography that etches stark images of Nazi bureaucracy and oppression, emphasizing the bleak and desperate years as the war turned bad for the Germans, and even worse for the Jews. We learn that by 1943, more than half of all the Jews that remained in Germany were concentrated in Berlin. Those who were married to Germans were temporarily exempt from the dreaded deportations. Immense pressure was brought to bear on the German spouses to divorce their partners and thereby abandon them to what was increasingly known as certain death in Auschwitz.
If they remained married, the Jewish spouse was conscripted into forced labor. This all changed in February 1943 as the Nazis began to arrest even these Jews and detained them in five buildings around Berlin, one of which was a former Jewish communal center at 2-4 Rosenstrasse.
Back in the present, Hannah meets with a relative of her mother’s and discovers a family secret; her mother Ruth survived the war in Berlin because a German woman hid her. Intrigued, Hannah successfully locates the woman, Lena Fischer (Doris Schade), now 90 years old and living in Berlin. Posing as a researcher into Nazi era intermarriage, she slowly pieces together the story of her mother’s survival and the complex intertwined relationships between Jews and Germans both before and during the war. The calm facade of interviews with her mother’s savior set in her cozy Berlin apartment provides a jarring contrast with images of wartime Berlin on the one hand, and the unexpected narrative of Lena’s own youth in prewar Germany.
As the beautiful daughter of a Prussian general the young Lena (in a sophisticated and tender performance by Katja Riemann that won the Best Actress award at the 2003 Venice Film Festival) was independent and headstrong. She fell in love with and married a brilliant Jewish musician, Fabian. The inexorable logic of Hitler’s racial laws finally led to his detention in Rosenstrasse where Lena, searching for him, meets the young Ruth. The eight-year-old Ruth is searching for her mother who was arrested and finally deported (unknown to Ruth) after her German husband divorced her. Lena does the only decent thing possible with the terrified but determined youngster ? she takes her in. Now they stand watch together, hoping for the release of their loved ones as their lives become fatefully intertwined.
In what was a rare demonstration of German protest against Nazi policies, a growing crowd of German women besieged the building at Rosenstrasse in a silent and determined vigil for their Jewish spouses. Suddenly, a man appears at a window and waves to the women below. One woman’s face lights up; “Look, look, that’s my Hans!” Immediately he is brutally pushed away from the window by a German soldier. The women look on in horror and then react. Slowly but surely they demand… “Give my husband back!” The demand is shouted, chanted, over and over in a display of astounding courage in the face of German guards, guns and, at one time in their seven day protest, Nazi machine guns. In spite of the winter’s cold and Nazi intransigence, day and night the women held their own. Just standing there and refusing to go away, the courageous German women forced the Nazis to free their Jewish spouses. The aged Lena tells a transfixed Hannah, “Yet it was a victory. And yet it was only a small ray of light in the darkness.”
The intergenerational parallels that seamlessly shift from past to present highlight the movie’s gentle sensitivity. Incident after incident draws us into the lives of the detainees, their pain and the pain of their loved ones, beguiling us with heart wrenching anxiety. The travails of Ruth as a Jewish child, desperate over the fate of her mother, the adult Ruth who refuses to face her past and her daughter Hannah’s search for the emotional truth about her family’s past, confront the complexity of Jewish memory. In contrast, Lena – once questioned – remembers with aching sorrow all that was lost, so long ago. The different ways of remembering alter our discoveries and how we understand them.
The aged Lena asks Hannah if she is married. No, she replies, but she has a boyfriend she hopes to marry, although he is not Jewish. “Pity,” Lena comments. Wistfully remembering her husband, Lena sighs, “Jewish men are so gentle.” She recalls the harsh fact that many Aryan men had abandoned their Jewish wives during those years, like “my little Ruth’s” father, Hannah’s grandfather. Still, Lena understands now how weakness, fear and pure chance were equally important just as much as strength of character.
Margarethe von Trotta, master director of German cinema, has created a moving document to simple decency in a time when such a virtue was in terribly short supply. Her film draws no conclusions, only documenting a moment in time when Germans stood up for Jews, simply because they were husband and wife. Decency won and yet tragedy still ruled the day. The reverberations of that terrible time still are felt today by Jew and non-Jew alike.
Rosenstrasse: A Film by Margarethe von Trotta. 136 minutes; Rated PG; Opens August 20, 2004.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at richardmcbee.com
Berlin’s Small Ray Of Light In The Darkness