Critics sometimes long for an old-fashioned type of film that we rarely see in Western arthouses these days beyond an occasional Ken Loach release: one that dramatises the political conflicts and contradictions of history, sensitive to their complexities, but also unafraid to take a stance.
Of all the filmmakers of the '70s working at the intersection of politics and commercial cinema, few have suffered more in the present climate than Margarethe von Trotta. In Australia, we have scarcely had the chance to view any of her work since The Promise (1995). But Rosenstrasse reminds us of her solid and enduring skills.
The film, meticulously researched, recreates an incident from Germany in 1943. The Jewish spouses of German citizens (some very affluent) were rounded up and detained. While some Germans abandoned their partners for the sake of survival, a group of women kept a constant vigil outside the detention centre. They eventually swap their initial, pained silence for massed cries of protest.
Von Trotta unfolds this story from a moment in contemporary New York, where Ruth (Jutta Lampe), recently widowed, suddenly embraces her Jewish heritage, much to the bewilderment of her grown children. Her daughter, Hannah (Maria Schrader) – herself about to marry a gentile – feels compelled to investigate Ruth's murky past, and especially the role of Lena (Katja Reimann), who looked after Ruth as a child. The difficult bond between mothers (or mother-figures) and daughters is a key theme of the film.
Rosenstrasse has justly been described (by socialist critic David Walsh) as a "deeply principled and humane" work. That does not mean, however, that it is always successful as a film. Von Trotta never manages to make the present-day sequences as engaging as the wartime story, and Hannah, in particular, is more a handy device than a flesh-and-blood character.
Too often, von Trotta's by-the-numbers visual style resembles the dreariest tele-drama. And when she cranks up the emotion for the film's big scenes, the tricks of emotional manipulation she uses are uncomfortably close to Spielberg's worst moments in Schindler's List (1993).
However, there is no denying that Rosenstrasse tells an important story well, and delivers it with a salutary moral conviction.
MORE von Trotta: Dark Times
© Adrian Martin June 2005