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Photograph courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Crossing History's Divide: Hannah (Maria Schrader, right) questions Lena (Doris Schade) about her experiences during World War II.

Title: Berlin Story

Hannah and her mother: 'Rosenstrasse' and a protest against the Nazis

By Richard von Busack

THOUGHT it's an unusual story of wartime heroism, Margarethe von Trotta's Rosenstrasse is all too conventionally told. The awful truth is that holocaust stories rub a calloused patch on the hearts of the constant moviegoer. You have to be a Polanski, basically, to find a new angle, a fresh way of making viewers see and remember. Von Trotta gets closest to the past when she visits a couple of actual locations: Rosenstrasse itself, a busy side street not far from Berlin Alexanderplatz, full of modern buildings with no memory of life before the war. In another scene, there's a dim park with a large, shapeless stone memorial to 37,500 deported Berlin Jews. These modern-day bracketing sequences follow Hannah (Maria Schrader, of Aimee and Jaguar) as she tries to dig up the story of her mother's childhood in Berlin.

This is the family history that her mother Ruth (Jutta Lampe) refuses to tell. The crisis comes when Ruth loses her husband. The new widow acts strangely religious, asking for an old-fashioned weeklong shiva for her dead husband, complete with shoelessness, unanswered phones and covered-up mirrors. Frustrated at her mother's odd silences, Hannah goes to Berlin to extract an oral history from Lena (Doris Schade), a 90-year-old lady who protected her mother from the Gestapo.

In obtaining this tale, Hannah learns of the women of the Rosenstrasse. At the Jewish Community Welfare Office near what was then the oldest synagogue in Berlin, the Nazis kept the Jewish husbands of Aryan women under armed guard. This lockup was in preparation for taking them "east," as one soldier puts it here, with significance in his voice. East, that is, to the labor and death camps. What prevented this fate from happening to all the inmates was a spontaneous nonviolent protest by the wives of the interned Jews in February-March 1943.

The Rosenstrasse story ought to be legend. It certainly would be a cinematic legend if it were told with the right amount of urgency and the kind of director's sensibility that could pick a half-dozen faces and stories out of the crowd. Von Trotta, who has been trying to get this film made for almost 10 years, takes the a different path, sticking with a single heroine, a baroness' daughter who keeps a vigil for her husband.

In the old-fashioned movie-idol role of the young Lena, Katja Riemann gets to play both glamorous and haggard. I liked her realistic moment of being off-put when she's hugged by a strange orphan child, and she looks lush when dolled up in an evening gown, for a sequence of nightclub life before the Nazi ax fell. Von Trotta is careful to tell of German misery during the war, in subplots of a bombing raid, a sympathetic employer and a wounded soldier; overall Rosenstrasse is a flattering look at an evil time. Everyone's so humane that hardly anyone seems human.

Rosenstrasse (PG-13; 136 min.) directed by Margarethe von Trotta, written by von Trotta and Pamela Katz, photographed by Franz Rath and starring Katja Riemann, and Doris Schade, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell.

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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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