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Friday, October 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
Love and valor in living hell of Nazi Germany

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

Svea Lohde plays a girl abandoned by her Aryan father after her Jewish mother is jailed.
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In a historical event with the vast scope of the Nazi Holocaust, there are still stories of courage and cruelty yet to be told.

One is the subject of leading German director Margarethe von Trotta's flawed but revealing film "Rosenstrasse," honored with a "best actress" award at the Venice International Film Festival for lead performer Katja Riemann.

Riemann portrays Lena Fischer, an aristocratic German pianist happily married to a Jewish violinist, Fabian (Martin Feifel). Though Lena is a fictional character, "Rosenstrasse," was inspired by recently revealed accounts of similar Aryan women who perilously remained wed to Jews in Nazi Germany.

At first the Nazis considered Jewish spouses of gentiles "Aryans by marriage." They were often harassed, but not subjected to the deportations and murder most Jews faced.

In 1943, the policy shifted. Some 5,000 Berlin Jews of "mixed parentage" or in "intermarriages" were detained, in a plan to ship them off to concentration camps.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Rosenstrasse," with Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Doris Schade. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, from a screenplay by von Trotta and Pamela Katz. 136 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence, bigotry. In German with English subtitles. Seven Gables.

When Fabian is taken into custody with other Jews in this category, the distraught Lena joins with other defiant wives who assemble daily, nightly in front of the former Jewish welfare offices on Rosen Street where (ironically) their spouses are being held.

In chilling scenes, these women risk their own lives to glimpse their husbands, gain information from guards, pressure authorities, demand their mates' release.

Lena also performs a second courageous act, characteristic of other good Samaritans now designated by Jews as "righteous gentiles." She takes in a homeless child, Ruth (Svea Lohde), whose Aryan father has abandoned her and whose Jewish mother is in custody.
The fear, ferocity and raw radiance in Riemann's face as Lena does everything she can for Fabian (including making nice with top Nazi official Hermann Goering), are tremendous assets to the film. So are the sweetness and terror in the poignant young Lohde's wide-eyed gaze.

"Rosenstrasse" stumbles, though, in von Trotta's choppy narrative. Endeavoring to illustrate how the agonies of the Holocaust haunt generation after generation, the film intersplices Lena's flashbacks with the modern quest of Ruth's German-American daughter, Hannah (Maria Schrader).

Hannah knows little about her taciturn mother's past. So she tracks down 90-year-old Lena (warmly portrayed by Doris Schade) in Berlin and interviews her under the guise of researching a book.

The charade is a weakly realized device, as is Hannah's confusion over her own pending nuptials. And the two-track story's pace is slowed by lingering landscape shots of Berlin and New York, and sentimentalized by a heavy-handed use of background music.

As it is seeing other films of Holocaust survival, it can be hard to celebrate the individual human victories in "Rosenstrasse" while contemplating the horrific annihilation of the Jewish masses.

But acts like Lena's are part of the historical mosaic too. And for all its flaws, "Rosenstrasse" is a welcome reminder that humans are capable of valor and generosity in the worst of times.

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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