The Women Who Stood up to Hitler
By Laura Winters
Copyright 2004 The Financial Times Limited
Financial Times
(London, England)
August 14, 2004 Saturday
Veteran film director Margarethe von Trotta has never avoided difficult subjects. Her new film about ordinary Berliners' resistance to the Holocaust
Trotta has always made it her business to challenge the troubled conscience of her country. The German film director has chronicled the difficult birth of German communism (Rosa Luxemburg), delved into 1970s terrorism (Marianne and Juliane), examined the scar left on the German soul by the Berlin Wall (The Promise), and explored the dark legacy of the Stasi, the East German secret police (The Other Woman).
With her latest feature film, von Trotta, now 62, is probing the most painful German wound of all. Rosenstrasse, which marks her return to feature filmmaking after a nine-year absence, depicts a little-known episode in the Holocaust that occurred during the second world war in Berlin. The film chronicles the last days of February 1943, when the Nazis started the Final Roundup to seize and deport the remaining Jews in Germany. During this brutal purge, 1,700 Jews were detained in an administrative building in Berlin on a street called Rosenstrasse. Most were men married to non-Jewish women. The women hurried to Rosenstrasse 2-4 and stood outside the building.
According to witnesses interviewed in American historian Nathan Stoltzfus's 1996 book, Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany, the women stood day and night in the winter cold, protesting against the detention of their husbands. After a week, the Nazi authorities released the men.
Astonishingly, the story of this successful protest largely disappeared in Germany after the war. It has only gradually resurfaced - mainly through the Stoltzfus book and now in von Trotta's film, which centres on a young contemporary Jewish- American named Hannah who goes to Berlin, intent on uncovering the mystery of her mother's traumatic wartime experiences. Hannah visits an old woman named Lena, who was one of the protesters on Rosenstrasse and who recounts the story of that week. During those days, as Lena kept her vigil for her husband, she took under her wing a little Jewish girl who was also waiting outside the building. That little girl, as it turns out, was Hannah's mother.
When Rosenstrasse was first shown in Germany last September, it caused a heated debate in the newspapers and then surprised everyone by becoming von Trotta's most commercially successful film in Germany. Its unexpected success indicates that there is now a willingness among Germans to discuss formerly taboo topics to do with the second world war. In the past few years, German films about the Holocaust such as Aimee and Jaguar and Nowhere in Africa have won critical and box-office acclaim in Germany. But what distinguishes von Trotta's film is that people now seem able to address the particularly provocative question it raises: individual responsibility and the difficult choices that ordinary Germans made during the mass deportations of the Jews.
Rosenstrasse is harrowing in its depiction of the decimation of the Jewish population in Berlin. The wrenching scenes have a power reminiscent of Spielberg's Schindler's List and Polanski's The Pianist. But von Trotta's film feels somehow more intimate, less an epic sweep than an exploration of individual courage. She insists on exploring the ordinary German's dilemma. Unlike Schindler's List or The Pianist, which show one "good" German in a sea of evil- doers, von Trotta depicts everyday citizens in a more nuanced light. In one scene, a woman married to a Jew tries to explain her frequent absences to her German boss. Instead of firing her he gives her money, but cautions her not to acknowledge that they've spoken. In another scene, one of the women waiting on Rosenstrasse is revealed to be the wife of a Nazi official. When the other women turn on her, she reacts with indignation, saying that she too has a relative inside the building and wants to stand with them.
One might at first think that von Trotta is overstating the balance of goodness here. But both of these scenes are backed by actual eyewitness accounts. This civil courage in the midst of horror becomes the ultimate indictment of a population that could have done much more to help the Jews, but did not. When I ask her about this, at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, von Trotta explains, "Hannah Arendt says, 'When everybody is guilty, nobody is guilty.' So I liked the idea of putting up another mirror for people to look into - to show that these women did behave differently, and they did succeed."
Von Trotta, who lives in Paris, is used to controversy back home. "I think I threaten a lot of people, especially male critics, in Germany," she says with a wry smile. "Because my films deal with strong women, and women in history." She nonetheless exudes warmth and vulnerability in person - as well as a dash of old-style glamour. Sipping a glass of white wine on a sunny restaurant terrace, she looks like Central Casting's idea of a German female director. Her eyes are bright blue; her hair is ash blonde. She loves to tell anecdotes - punctuating her fluent English with a husky chuckle - and she has a radar-like sensitivity and receptiveness to other people.
She first heard about the protest on Rosenstrasse from her former husband, filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, in the early 1990s. He introduced her to a documentary filmmaker, Daniela Schmidt, who had made a film about it. Schmidt, in turn, introduced von Trotta to some of the witnesses.
After talking to 12 survivors, von Trotta knew that she had to make a film. "This story deeply moved me," she says. "These women did not intend to stage a political demonstration. Every woman came to Rosenstrasse out of love for her husband. And, all of a sudden, together, they became a sort of power."
However, showing that resistance might have been possible under the Nazis was difficult in Germany, even as late as the 1990s. When von Trotta first tried to make the film, financiers would not touch it. "At that time, we had an explosion of comedies in Germany," she says. "They all said, 'Oh no. Who wants to hear these old stories?'" Though there had been occasional German films about the war, and several about civil resistance to the Nazis (such as Michael Verhoeven's 1982 film The White Rose, about a student uprising), the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust itself were largely taboo subjects. Says Markus Zimmer, one of the producers of Rosenstrasse, "There was a period of time - until the late 1970s and early 1980s - when the subject was not touched at all. Only slowly, after an American television series such as Holocaust or a film like Schindler's List became big successes in Germany, did German filmmakers really decide to confront the reality of the Nazi era."
The inhibition about discussing the Holocaust was deep-seated. The celebrated German writer Peter Schneider, who has written often on the Holocaust, says he never learned about the history of the Nazi Reich when he was at school. Now, he says, things have changed in that the Holocaust is being taught in schools and many books have been published about it. But it remains difficult to acknowledge the few Germans who put up civil resistance. "Why don't we know more of these stories?" he asks. "There is a kind of self-righteous self-hate among the Germans themselves. They say, 'We have learned about the perpetrators. Don't bother us now with the story of a few decent Germans. It just confuses everything.'" Stories about "good" Germans were suppressed for years because of the fear "that they might lead people to belittle the horrors of Nazism".
But these stories, he adds, have also been suppressed because of a bad conscience. "If you look at the big heroes of the German resistance, the military men like von Stauffenberg, you could say 'You can't ask the same thing from me because I'm just a little citizen.' But if you prove that ordinary citizens took risks to help Jews and were successful - well, it shows that resistance was, in fact, possible, but that most people chose not to do it."
Even after Schindler's List became a huge success in Germany in 1994, there was still a feeling that stories about "good Germans" were off-limits for Germans themselves to explore. So von Trotta gave up on making her film, and, for several years, while the wave of comedies continued, she made movies for television.
But in 1999, Martin Wiebel, her longtime creative producer, persuaded her to try again. Wiebel saw the advent of the Schroder government as a sign that questions that had been preserved in a conspiracy of silence could start to be addressed. The new German government's acceptance, for instance, of the need to compensate the surviving slave and forced labourers who were victimised under the Third Reich signalled that questions of the Holocaust might now be treated more openly. By the autumn of 2002, von Trotta had received the financing and was at last able to make the film.
Von Trotta tells me, when we meet in New York, that her empathy with victims of history springs partly from her own background. "I was stateless as a child. My mother, who was not married when I was born, was an aristocrat, born in Moscow. Her family had to flee after the Russian Revolution, and, because their roots were German, they came to Germany. But my mother, until her death, never accepted the German nationality. So on the one hand, being born in Berlin, I feel like a German. But on the other hand I've always been able to stand back and look detachedly at German society - because of having felt isolated and not totally accepted."
With Rosenstrasse, she knew she was taking on a particularly painful subject, even though the time was ripe. "For a long time, you couldn't even think of making a film about Germans who saved Jews," she says. "It would have been unseemly, after so many cruelties. But now the time has come when we can also speak about these other people, to show that this was possible, and that much more could have been done."
Nonetheless, she was shocked when, in an incendiary newspaper article, Wolfgang Benz, director of the Centre for Research on Anti-Semitism in Berlin, attacked the film as cliche-ridden and melodramatic. On the historical front, he questioned the idea - though it's never explicitly stated in the film - that these men were actually rescued from deportation by their wives.
Benz cited an article written by his former student Wolf Gruner that postulates that the Nazis never intended to deport the people being held in Rosenstrasse 2-4. On the phone from Berlin, Gruner explains his sources. "One of them is a regional decree from Frankfurt am Oder with orders from the Reich Main Security Office for the next deportation wave," he says. "This decree specifically excluded Jews in mixed marriages from the Final Roundup."
Still, Benz and Gruner affirm the courage of the women protesters. So if these Jews were not to be deported, why were they detained? By comparing lists of the Jewish employees who worked in Jewish organisations in Berlin both before and after the Final Roundup, Gruner concludes that the people held in Rosenstrasse 2-4 went on later to fill the jobs of Jews who had been deported.
Von Trotta disagrees. "There were children held in that building," she says. "If the Nazis meant solely to be filling the jobs of bureaucrats, why did they hold young people there?"
Stoltzfus, who wrote a sharp riposte to Benz, concurs with von Trotta. "Deportation decrees were often used to deceive. For instance, they had been deporting Jews from Germany to Auschwitz since the middle of the summer in 1942, but no deportation directives said they were to go there until February of 1943."
In fact, a cryptic diary entry by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi party leader of Berlin, may refer to Rosenstrasse and seems to indicate that the Nazis did intend to deport these detainees. On March 6 1943, Goebbels wrote: "Unfortunately there have been a number of regrettable scenes at a Jewish home for the aged, where a large number of people gathered and in part even took sides with the Jews. I ordered the SD not to continue Jewish evacuation at so critical a moment. We want to save that up for a couple of weeks. We can then go after it all the more thoroughly."
Even this diary entry, however, causes vociferous disagreement among the historians. Was Goebbels referring to Rosenstrasse 2-4 or to another building? And did he have the actual authority to stop deportation orders, as he claims?
In this sea of contested historical detail, it is nonetheless clear that the women's devotion saved their husbands from deportation, by resisting the pressure to divorce that the Nazis had long been placing on all those married to Jews. "Any Jewish person who was divorced by a non-Jew at that time was deported," says Stoltzfus. "But these women, since 1933, had resisted every effort of the regime and the society to break up their marriages. Through their quiet non- co-operation, their resistance to all pressure, they individually saved their spouses. It's just that at Rosenstrasse, the rescue finally became collective."
The survivors of Rosenstrasse themselves believe this. Rita Kuhn, a 76-year-old Berliner who lives today in California, was 15 years old when she was detained inside Rosenstrasse 2-4 with her father and her younger brother.
"I was locked in a foul-smelling room with three other women," she says. Kuhn was told by one of her companions that there had been a protest by women outside all that week, constantly escalating. "She had been listening to them all week, shouting 'Give us back our men'," Kuhn says. "I don't know how many people are still alive who were in Rosenstrasse," she says, "but I feel very strongly that we were saved by those women. I owe my life to them."
For von Trotta, who received letters from survivors thanking her for making the film, it is imperative that historical debate not distract from the central point of the women's heroism. "I am a filmmaker, not a historian," she says. "I go with human beings and emotions. These eyewitnesses - what they saw, what they believe - moved me to make this film."
She looks at me intensely. "We'll never know why these people were actually released. And I never say specifically why in the film. But the women outside didn't know what was going to happen, and their courage is the important thing. They knew that deportation to the east meant death. They were courageous out of despair. That they refused to leave, but stood there and protested - to me, that is the meaning of the story."
"Rosenstrasse" will open in the US on August 20.