- The Women Who Stood up to
- By Laura
- Copyright 2004 The Financial
Financial Times (London, England)
August 14, 2004 Saturday
SECTION: FT WEEKEND MAGAZINE - Arts; Pg. 34
- Veteran film director
Margarethe von Trotta has never avoided difficult subjects.
Her new film about ordinary Berliners' resistance to the
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- "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
- 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.