Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Rosenstrasse/Rosenstraße (2003)

Production Companies: Studio Hamburg Letterbox Filmproduktion GmbH (Hamburg)
Tele-München Fernseh GmbH & Co. (Munich)
Distributors: Concorde Filmverleih GmbH (Munich)
Producers: Richard Schöps, Henrik Meyer, Markus Zimmer and Kerstin Ramcke
Screenplay: Margarethe von Trotta and Pamela Katz
Director: Margarethe von Trotta
Cinematographer: Franz Rath
Editor: Corina Dietz
Music: Loek Dikker
Cast: Doris Schade (Lena), Katja Riemann (young Lena), Maria Schrader (Hannah), Jutta Lampe (Ruth), Svea Lohde (young Ruth)
Running Time: 135 mins.
Classification: Age 12 and older, 9-11 with parental guidance.
Box office gross: domestic $732,036, international $5,341,090 Continue reading


Plot New York 2001. After her husband dies, Ruth seems to be acting very distraught, according to her daughter Hannah. When Hannah starts probing into the past, she finds out that her mother, whose Jewish parents were deported during World War II, was raised by an “Aryan” woman named Lena. Hannah travels to Berlin and finds the now almost 90-year-old Lena. The old woman tells Hannah her story: the story of the women of the Rosenstrasse. Lena was married to a Jewish musician. One day when he didn’t come home from work, she went out looking for him. After a bureaucratic odyssey, she is sent to the Rosenstrasse, where she finds other women also looking for their Jewish husbands who have been incarcerated there. It is in the Rosenstrasse that Lena meets little Ruth. Upon the wives’ diligent insistence, the men are released, but Ruth’s mother is deported. Ruth stays with Lena until relatives in the United States send for her. After losing her own mother, Ruth cannot stand losing Lena too, and, in a furious rage, throws the ring that she once received from her mother at Lena’s feet. When Hannah returns with this ring, Ruth is finally able to come to terms with her past.

Film note The opening shots of Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse (Rosenstraße) (2003)consist of a series of close ups of headstones, beginning with onebearing the word “Father”, which fades into another displaying the word “Husband”, and the succeeding ones are marked with symbols such as the star of David, signifying that the dead are Jewish. Almost every successive shot after this is slightly wider, incorporating more headstones each time; the way people and the past are remembered, and Jewish suffering, individual and collective, are key themes in Rosenstrasse. This essay explores this important film in relation to German ‘heritage’ cinema, the ‘genre’ of Holocaust cinema, and the authorial preoccupations of director Margarethe von Trotta.

New German heritage cinema Eric Rentschler famously detailed a split between two periods of German film, the New German Cinema movement, and then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of a “cinema of consensus” (264). The latter, in comparison to the “challenging and unsettling” New German Cinema, is “unabashedly conventional in its appearance and structure” (Rentschler 264). Margarethe von Trotta is primarily identified as a director of the New German Cinema era, so to examine a work of hers set within at least the time period established for the cinema of consensus is an interesting one. Rosenstrasse is also linked by many critics to German “heritage” cinema, which Paul Cooke notes is “the most pronounced trend within German film production from the late 1990s onwards” (88), and has also been described as conservative and conventional, leading Christine Haase to note “the close links between heritage film and the cinema of consensus” (41). However, quite where Rosenstrasse fits in regards to this conventionality is up for debate. It already ticks one box in the German heritage cinema checklist in that its chosen area of history is the Third Reich, one which other films under that label, such as Aimee and Jaguar (Aimee und Jaguar) (1999), also situate themselves. One of the conventional features of heritage films is an attempt to “shift the focus away from the question of German culpability for past crimes to an exploration of the extent to which the nation itself suffered under the Nazis” (Cooke 91). Rosenstrasse, with its focus on the protest of non-Jewish German women against the imprisonment of their Jewish husbands, in many ways follows this same path of exploring the victimhood of so-called ‘ordinary’ Germans.

Although it begins with imagery signifying Jewish suffering, it is in fact through Lena, a non-Jewish German woman, that the majority of the narrative of the protest is told. It is through her memories that the spectator experiences the Third Reich, and even though the film is also concerned with the experience of Ruth, a Jewish German, it is through the eyes of Lena that we see the large majority of her experience, with only a few flashbacks directly from Ruth. The film is arguably more concerned with Lena’s suffering than Ruth’s; and, critically, her suffering as a result of her Jewish husband’s plainly greater suffering under imprisonment. Aimee and Jaguar has been criticised for a similar tendency, with Stuart Taberner pointing out that “at the conclusion of Aimée und Jaguar the dominant mood is one of loss. Significantly, however, this loss appears as a German loss” (364). The spectator is associated with Lilly’s perspective, that of the ordinary German, in the final part of the film after Felice is arrested and taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp, particularly in one key moment: a close up of Lilly writhing around on the floor and screaming. This is a heart-breaking presentation of grief, but the grief of a non-Jewish woman, inferring that Felice’s imprisonment and death make Lilly a victim of the Nazi regime. Rosenstrasse follows this logic and is part of a worrying trend that implies that “Jews and non-Jews suffered the same damages, losses, and traumas” (Koepnick 72). By bringing up and then focusing largely on the suffering of ordinary Germans both films struggle to avoid relativizing the two experiences.

Brad Prager remarks that these films “generally depict the war years in a way that romanticises the history of German-Jewish partnerships and excises the spectre of racist zealotry among all but the most diabolical Nazis” (79). Rosenstrasse is centered around German-Jewish partnerships – it is about married German-Jewish couples, and the children of these unions, of which Ruth is one. Taberner remarks that in Aimee and Jaguar the “German-Jewish romance […] is narratively and visually located in the Weimar Republic” and that this is “an affirmation of the progressive values of Weimar, of tolerance, creativity and self-realisation, and a rejection of the philistine bigotry of the Nazis” (363). This echoes one of Lena’s flashbacks in Rosenstrasse, set in a Berlin jazz bar, where the tolerance of the Weimer era is overtly clear with the inclusion of a black lounge singer and non-white couples dancing alongside the main characters. What this implies is that the Third Reich was an anomaly in an ultimately accepting and open-minded Germany, and that the Rosenstrasse protest is an example of a German-Jewish solidarity that the Nazis could not fully destroy. It makes the film appear to depict a world in which, as Hilary Potter argues, Nazism is presented as “an entirely un-German phenomenon imposed on an unwilling nation” (214).

This is furthered by the inclusion of multiple Germans who sympathise with the Rosenstrasse protestors. One of the protestors, Klara, is given money by her boss so she can continue missing work and wait for her husband’s release. A woman wearing a Nazi pin joins the protests on behalf of her sister. One of the guards at the detention center lets the protestors retrieve items from their imprisoned husbands, and when Lena asks if she can sneak in to see her husband Fabian, replies that it would cost him his life – not that he simply will not let her. It is only fear of the consequences that prevents him from helping her, suggesting that he secretly supports the women. As Potter says, “in the film only the Nazis are truly culpable” (214). There is no sense of the complicity of ordinary Germans, or that their inability to act in any truly significant way against the Nazis is problematic. Potter also points out that Lena’s father’s attempted deal with Fabian to exchange his passage to England for their divorce “marks him out as a Machiavellian anti-Semite, but not one who would necessarily, willingly endorse genocide” (214). She points out that his shocked reaction to Arthur’s mention of the horrors inflicted upon the deported Jewish people could even “humanise” his character (214). The film arguably alleges here that although many Germans were anti-Semitic, most were not anti-Semitic to the extent the Nazis were. Similarly, Arthur’s use of pictures of mass killings he witnessed as leverage is not examined – he is close enough to take detailed pictures of the event, yet his level of involvement in these killings is not discussed. As Potter states, “the viewer is invited to overlook this, to see his anguish and to concentrate instead on his endeavours to save Fabian and to support Lena and Ruth” (215). Here, the mass killings of Jewish Germans are used as the basis of a Nazi soldier’s attempt at redemption; his feelings are centralised, not the suffering he witnessed.

Holocaust films Thomas Elsaesser notes that “the most persistent criticism of Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s focus on one individual, tilting the narrative away from the destiny and destruction of a people, towards the story of Schindler” (162). Perhaps this use of indirect address of the suffering of the Holocaust is due to the fact that, as Elsaesser also states, the Holocaust is an event “that defies representation and yet demands it with equal finality” (147), leading to many issues and complexities. Prager asserts that “popular modes of coming to terms with the Holocaust presuppose that there can be some understanding between victims and contemporary observers […] this is by and large false currency and is predicated primarily on purchasing reconciliation and papering over collective wounds” (91) in other words, there is often a lack of engagement with the specificity and magnitude of the Holocaust victims’ suffering in favour of finding ways contemporary observers can relate to or comprehend it. Again, perhaps the decision to focus Holocaust films around non-Jewish Germans is a way to avoid this presupposition, as perhaps a non-Jewish character who witnesses suffering is easier for contemporary spectators to identify with. However, it would be remiss not to note the clear differentiation between Schindler’s List and the other films, including Rosenstrasse. Schindler’s List is still centrally concerned with the suffering of the Jewish people, even though presented through the story of a non-Jewish German. Elsaesser points out that, in regards to the controversial shower scene, “[Spielberg] is careful in this scene also to direct the eye towards the background, to a long column of figures disappearing into an underground bunker which the viewer need not be told stand for the gas chambers” (162). The main focus of the scene itself, although eventually revealed to be an actual shower, hinges on the spectator’s expectations of the horrors of the Holocaust. In many scenes similar to this, the Jewish people are central, and their suffering is not minimised, as is arguably the case in Rosenstrasse and Aimee and Jaguar.

However, this is not necessarily the only interpretation of the presentation of Jewish suffering in Rosenstrasse. Sally Winkle describes how von Trotta’s film subtly demarcates the different levels of trauma suffered by Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, in contrast to other German heritage films. She compares Ruth and Lena’s flashbacks in the film: “Ruth’s flashbacks focus on her traumatic memories of fear, death, and the agonizing loss of her mother, her home, and familiar stability” while “Lena’s memories are those of a non-Jewish German woman who […] did not directly experience the overwhelming fear and loss that Ruth felt following the arrest and deportation of her mother” (440). The fact that Ruth’s flashbacks are short, largely devoid of dialogue, and initially unclear contextually, support this comparison, and although the majority of the film focuses on Lena’s recollections, the significance of the beginning of the film’s focus on Ruth’s pain is clear. The spectator’s first experience of the Third Reich in the film is through Ruth’s memories of her family and neighbours being taken away. A palpable sense of fear permeates the scene of a young Ruth hiding from the same fate, conveyed by the grey toned colour scheme, the empty rooms, and the sweeping intensity of the score. Similarly, in contrast to the happy anticipation of the reunification of the Rosenstrasse women and their family members, the final moment outside the detention centre is a young Ruth asking “When is my mother coming?”, to no response. Here, moments that focus on German victimhood are ostensibly undercut by reminders of the incomparable extent of the suffering of Jewish Germans.

von Trotta’s oeuvre Winkle also points out that this focus on memory is significant in von Trotta’s other work, specifically her 1981 film Marianne and Juliane (Marianne und Juliane). As already noted, von Trotta is largely associated with the New German Cinema movement, due to the fact that her first and best-known films fit within the remits of the movement delineated by critics such as Rentschler. The interweaving of flashbacks of the past with the present, and the continual connections between the two, stylistically and content-wise, reveal the key concerns of von Trotta’s film, namely as Susan Linville states, “the mutual illumination of past and present, with the intersection of public and private, and with the tension between remembering and forgetting” (447). Juliane’s growing obsession with discovering the truth about her sister Marianne’s death, and the scene in which the sisters as young children are horrified to the point of vomiting upon watching scenes from Night and Fog (1951) depicting Nazi concentration camps, illuminate Linville’s argument. Winkle points out that this concern with memory, and grappling with the past, are also key concerns of Rosenstrasse (443-444). As aforementioned, it can be argued that Rosenstrasse presents two differentiated strands of suffering at the hands of the Nazis, that of ordinary Germans and that of Jewish people. How von Trotta does this, crucially, is through depictions of memory, and grappling with the past – specifically from the perspective of women.

Winkle writes that another connection between Rosenstrasse andvon Trotta’s earlier films, including Marianne and Juliane, is how it “highlights female subjectivity, relationships between women, and the importance of solidarity and female agency” (429) – Rosenstrasse is centred around a group of women protesting against the Nazi elite, structured through the memories and activities of women. In one moment of the film, as Nazi soldiers aim a machine gun directly at the crowd, the camera pans across the line of women, focusing on their faces. Many look scared, many look determined – but none move, clearly emphasising female solidarity in this moment. However, in comparison with von Trotta’s earlier avowedly feminist films, Winkle argues that Rosenstrasse “might be better described as a ““woman-centred” film with feminist tendencies” (443). The film is not so much an interrogation of the structures of a patriarchal society as it is a showcase of an event of women’s courage and determination.

Clearly, although on one hand Marianne and Juliane and Rosenstrasse may be said tofit in the two distinct categories set out by Rentschler – New German Cinema and the cinema of consensus respectively – there is one way von Trotta’s focus has not appeared to change; an emphasis on the significance of memory, both personal and national. However, why Rosenstrasse is labelled as a part of consensus cinema is the extent of conventionality within the film. The emphasis on good ordinary Germans, a connected German-Jewish victimhood, and a presentation of female resolve rather than a feminist examination of womanhood and patriarchy are elements of this. There are many others, from the historically accurate and dimly lit grey and blue toned depictions of Nazi Germany that easily differentiate it from the lighter and brighter toned present, in comparison to the more complex and interwoven flashback structure of Marianne and Juliane, to the comforting conclusion to the film. This latter element is a clear example of the problems this film and other similar films tend to have – Prager notes that heritage films “[incline] towards the affirmative assertion that the case can be closed […] and that the past can be left behind” (92). This is epitomized in the final scene of Rosenstrasse; ending with Hannah and her gentile boyfriend Luis’ wedding leaves the viewer with a feeling of joy and implies a sense of closure. Unfortunately, with the subject matter of Rosenstrasse, this could suggest that the crimes of the Third Reich and the suffering of the Jewish people is something to simply be moved on from. The final moment of the film is a close up on Ruth’s smiling face as she watches the happy couple, accentuating this even further, implying that Ruth’s reliving of her traumatic past is ‘finished’ – perhaps it could even be interpreted to suggest that Jewish people such as Ruth can ‘move on’ from the Holocaust.

Though there are a myriad of reasons as to why Rosenstrasse appears to be more of a conventional film than von Trotta’s prior work, it is important to note that there are previous versions of the screenplay for Rosenstrasse, which did not gain adequate financial backing, in which there was more emphasis on the culpability of ordinary Germans, and a less easily consumable flashback structure (Potter 193-196). Both Potter and Winkle cite commercial reasons for the more conventional final version (Potter 188, Winkle 435), and although Rentschler is ultimately critical of the cinema of consensus, he clearly states that “dramatic shifts in the nature of German film subsidy since the early 1980s have influenced the content and shape of productions, diminishing the possibility for political interventions and the presence of alternative perspectives and formal experiments” (267), and the eventual national and international success of Rosenstrasse supports this.

All this is perhaps why most discussions of Rosenstrasse find it difficult to wholly judge the film, as it is a mix of elements that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. This essay has focused on the film’s unfortunate tendency to follow along the same lines as many other German heritage and Holocaust films, including that it focuses on the victimhood of non-Jewish Germans under the Nazi regime while seeming to dismiss the suffering of Jewish people. This, alongside the notion of good ordinary Germans in contrast to the Nazis, and the suggestion of a ‘moving on’ from the trauma of the Holocaust, can perhaps be seen to reflect the “perceived need in Germany following reunification […] to reclaim and recount stories that cast German history during World War Two in an at least marginally more “positive” light” (Winkle 430-431). It is potentially this which leads to Rosenstrasse’s unfortunate implications, as it is arguably von Trotta’s apparent attempt to present a ‘positive’ depiction of the heroism of German women that leaves little room for the complexities of such a ‘positive’ reconsideration of the past to be fully considered. It is fundamentally an excellent case study in terms of Germany’s trouble with depicting and remembering its own past – ironically, a clear theme in von Trotta’s own work.


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Linville, Susan. “Retrieving History: Margarethe von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane”. PMLA 106 (1991): 446-458. Print.

Potter, Hilary. The Dynamics of German Remembering: The Rosenstraße Protest in Historical Debate and Cultural Representation. 2014. University of Bath, PhD Dissertation.

Prager, Brad. “Music After Mauthausen: Re-Presenting the Holocaust in Stefan Ruzowitzsky’s The Counterfeiters (2007)”. New Directions in German Cinema. Eds. Paul Cooke and Chris Homewood. New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2011. 77-93. Print.

Rentschler, Eric. “From New German Cinema to the Post-Wall Cinema of Consensus”. Cinema and Nation. Eds. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie. London: Routledge, 2000. 260-277. Print.

Taberner, Stuart. “Philo-Semitism in Recent German Film: Aimee und Jaguar, Rosenstrasße and Das Wunder von Bern”. German Life and Letters 58 (2005): 357-372. Print.

Winkle, Sally. “Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse: “Feminist Re-Visions” of a Historical Controversy”. A Companion to German Cinema. Eds. Terri Ginsberg and Andrea Mensch. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2012. 429-461. Print.

Written by Alex Kelly (2020); Queen Mary University of London

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