August 19, 2004
In Defense of Jewish Husbands
In early 1943, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decided to "avenge" the German defeat at Stalingrad by finally making Berlin completely "Judenrein."
On Feb. 27, the Gestapo and SS rounded up the last 5,000 Jewish men, and some women, still living legally in the German capital. They had been spared deportation so far because they were married to "Aryans" or had a non-Jewish parent.
Before sending them on to Auschwitz, some of the Jews were held at the former Jewish Community Welfare Office on Rosenstrasse.
The next morning, a few dozen Aryan wives of the imprisoned Jews stood in the cold outside the Rosenstrasse building, demanding the release of their husbands.
One day later, 100 more women and a few men, including one in a German army uniform, joined the protestors.
By the sixth day, close to 1,000 took part in the vigil, and when an SS contingent trained machine guns on the protestors, they screamed back "Murderers" and would not be moved.
"It wasn't easy, even for Nazis, to shoot these women," director-writer Margarethe von Trotta commented. "After all, these were Aryan women who were displaying the supreme Germanic virtue -- to be loyal to their husbands."
On the seventh day of the stand-off, Goebbels gave in. He ordered the Jews to be released to their families, including 25 men who had already been sent to Auschwitz.
Thus began and ended the only known successful internal public protest against Nazi rule, a fairly obscure historical incident now resurrected in the German film "Rosenstrasse."
Von Trotta, one of Europe's preeminent filmmakers with a special gift for portraying strong women, has previously chronicled the story of 20th century Germany in such films as "Rosa Luxemburg" and "The Pledge." It took her some 10 years to complete the cycle by documenting her country's "darkest period" in "Rosenstrasse."
While staying true to the basic facts, she has dramatized the story by telling it largely through the eyes of a young American Jewish woman, Hannah Weinstein (Maria Schrader).
Hannah's mother, as a young child, was an eyewitness to the Rosenstrasse drama but had never talked about her past, so the daughter sets out to present-day Berlin to track down the family history.
There, Hannah encounters an old woman, Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann), who recounts the 1943 events in black-and-white flashbacks.
Lena had horrified her aristocratic German family by marrying a Jewish violinist and becomes one of the first protestors at Rosenstrasse when her husband is arrested.
The film is quite slow-paced, but it catches the grim, oppressive atmosphere of wartime Berlin, just undergoing its first massive British air raid.
Von Trotta also exposes the luxurious wartime lifestyle of the Nazi elite when Lena, as the beautiful blonde baroness, attends a party in a desperate attempt to charm Goebbels into releasing her husband.
Martin Wuttke, who impressed Los Angeles theatergoers a few years back in Bertolt Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" at UCLA, plays Goebbels.
During a brief visit to Los Angeles, von Trotta speculated on what gave a few hundred German housewives the moral backbone to defy the Nazi rulers in the midst of war.
"This was not a political demonstration," she said. "These women did not intend to act as a political group, but each woman wanted to protect her husband. They did not see themselves as heroines. They were afraid, they were in despair and they acted with the courage of despair."
Questioned on the continued focus of German and American filmmakers on the Nazi and Holocaust eras, von Trotta responded, "Hitler said that his Reich would last 1,000 years. We have to remember his crimes for the next 1,000 years."
As the "von" in her name indicates, the director is descended from an aristocratic German family, although since her mother was not married when Margarethe was born, she took her mother's name.
"Actually, my mother's ancestors were knight Crusaders, who after killing Jews and Muslims, returned from the Holy Land and settled in Eastern Europe to 'Christianize' the Baltic states and Russia," she said.
Von Trotta got her start as one of the most popular actresses of the New German Cinema, working closely with her former husband, director Volker Schlondorff.
When I mentioned to von Trotta that I had lived near Rosenstrasse as a youngster, she turned the interview around.
"There are lots of questions I want to ask you," she said. "How did you live during the Nazi period? Do you hate the Germans?"
But the next interviewer was already knocking on the door, and we agreed to continue our conversation by e-mail between Los Angeles and Paris, where the director lives.
"Rosenstrasse" opens Aug. 20 at three Laemmle theaters, Royal in West Los Angeles, Town Center 5 in Encino, and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.