One of the Holocaust's many epic footnotes is the story of Aryan Germans who wed Jews, who were then "Aryan by marriage" and, in theory and by law, immune from death camps.
In the winter of 1943, these "intermarried" Jews were separated from the general Jewish population and shipped to a Berlin welfare building at 2-4 Rosenstrasse, which had been transformed into a prison for Jews.
There the detainees were kept for months until a series of impassioned protests against the Nazi government, mostly from the Aryan wives and half-Jewish daughters of the inmates, won their release. It's a rousing story that might be unfamiliar to most people, and it is certainly deserving of a huge, important, heartbreaking, yet personal piece of historical cinematic art.
In the meantime, there's Margarethe von Trotta's "Rosenstrasse," which is only a few of these things, mostly historical. The movie von Trotta has made is an occasionally worthy tribute to the protests, but it's also needlessly confusing in its structure.
Rather than focus on the incidents at the makeshift prison, it prefers to take us there through a bad mother-daughter melodrama. So we get flashbacks intended to explain why, not long after her husband's funeral, Ruth (Jutta Lampe) is being such an untamable shrew to her adult children. She's a New Yorker who emigrated from Germany and is suddenly intensely interested in reconnecting with her Jewish roots, just in time for shiva, and just in time to ban her daughter Hannah's Latin fiancé from the services.
Determined to get to the bottom of her mother's behavior, Hannah (Maria Schrader) high-tails it to Berlin, where she winds up meeting 90-year-old Lena (Doris Schade), a former Weimar cabaret pianist who took in young Ruth (Svea Lohde) after her mother and Fabian (Martin Feifel), Lena's husband and musical partner, were taken to Rosenstrasse.
There dozens of women wait outside the guarded building, patiently at first, for their family members to be released. And the stuff on the street makes for such evocative and uncanny images that von Trotta has hard time coming up with anything as powerful in the rest of the movie.
We get scenes of pretty Lena (Katja Riemann), gone ragged, homely, and saintly, being the sole crusader for the Rosenstrasse releases. She turns to her aristocrat family, including her well-connected brother (Jurgen Vogel) and her forbidding and unforgiving father, who's disgusted with Lena's decision to marry a Jew. Just to set eyes on Fabian, she does everything from flirting with Nazi officers to disguising herself as a Jew in an attempt to get inside the prison.
A lot of "Rosenstrasse" is the sort of movie you would have expected to see Jane Wyman, or later, Sally Field, carry on her shoulders. But because this is not one movie but more like four, not even the dubious Hollywood women's picture running around in here is fleshed out. Instead, we get the sinking feeling that von Trotta, who's best when dealing with cunning women in difficult political circumstances ("Rosa Luxemburg"), might get a set of steak knives if she can take the movie over the two-hour mark. (Mission accomplished.)
The picture's structural intricacy is a smoke screen for its psychological and emotional shallowness. Once that melodrama really kicks in between Hannah and Ruth -- the tears, the healing, the trinkets -- you wonder why the movie has gone to all this trouble to be such a greeting card.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.