In Rosenstrasse, German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta throws so many tumultuous storylines together that it’s a miracle that her movie comes off as smoothly as it does. By the end of her 135-minute saga, the viewer is left both impressed by the gracefulness and subtlety of its effects and confused by exactly what the sum total of those effects are. Each of the movie’s three women, all from different generations, is trying to heal from the emotional fallout of WWII. Anxious to determine the root cause of her Jewish mother Ruth’s (Jutta Lampe) inveterate prejudice against non-Jews, Hannah (Maria Schrader), a young New Yorker, travels to Berlin where she locates the sweet-tempered elderly Lena (Doris Schade), an Aryan woman who became Ruth’s adoptive mother following the 1943 Rosenstrasse uprisings.
Von Trotta shifts between Hannah’s interviews with Lena and the uprising itself when Aryan women protested the detentions of their Jewish husbands on the titular Berlin street. Among them is young Lena (Katja Riemann) who, in the midst of keeping vigil on Rosenstrasse and making anguished appeals for her husband’s release, forms a tender relationship with Ruth (Svea Lohde), an eight-year-old abandoned after Nazis arrested her mother. Von Trotta underscores Ruth’s tragic ignorance of her mother’s fate in one shot that sweeps up from the girl, standing alone in the street, to a window of an empty holding cell above. The shot is meant to be a poignant remark of Ruth’s lonely destiny, but feels superfluous and heavy-handed since the fate of Ruth’s mother has already been made explicit to the audience some scenes earlier.
While von Trotta withholds Ruth her due closure, she commits the inverse narrative flub on the matter of her father, an Aryan man who abandoned Ruth and her mother years earlier. Showing us this event, so crucial to our understanding of the older Ruth’s mistrust of non-Jews, might’ve gone a long way in deepening our sympathy for her and adding poignancy to her survival story. But, confoundingly, von Trotta reveals this information in the dullest way imaginable: through dialogue. And, what’s worse, it’s spoken not by Ruth but by the older Lena, a character with only second-hand knowledge of it. The matter is, hence, discarded like so much expository detritus and lost in the scattered fragments of the narrative.
Matters of storytelling is Rosenstrasse‘s most chronic problem. A testament to the courage and resilience of women makes for a good essay or folk anthem, but, for the purposes of an intimate character study, its handling here is far too abstract. The movie loses its center of gravity, tipped off balance by too many stories all vying for emotional dominance. In this way, Rosenstrasse falls apart under its own weight. Given its gently assured pacing and evocative visual design, however, it’s clear that an astute filmmaker is at the helm. To her credit, Von Trotta also manages to navigate a story rife with emotional wounds without stumbling into sensationalism or melodrama. Where von Trotta most redeems her waywardness, though, is in her use of faces. All of Rosenstrasse revolves around the war-weary expressions of women enduring the traumas of loss and separation, women who barter their sexual integrity for a glint of hope, who mourn the bitterness left in war’s wake and, finally, brighten with joy having found a redemption long sought for. In its wonderful faces, then, Rosenstrase finds an emotional resonance that it strives toward in its telling and never quite accomplishes.