catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 21 :: 2005.11.18 — 2005.12.01


The power of presence

On February 27, 1943, SS soldiers and local Gestapo agents began seizing the Jews of Berlin in an operation called ?the Final Roundup.? They were loaded onto trucks and taken to the Jewish community?s administration building at Rosenstrasse 2-4, in the heart of the city. The goal was finally to make the city judenfrei (free of Jews), necessitating the forcible collection of Jews with German spouses and their Mischling (mixed ancestry) children.

So begins the section that covers the non-violent resistance of Berliner women on Rosenstrasse toward the end of WWII in Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall?s book A Force More Powerful. The story of is that of 600 women who protested the internment of their family members by their presence outside of Rosenstrasse 2-4?a protest that eventually led to the release of 1,700 Jewish prisoners, some of whom were transported back from the concentration camps.

While Ackerman and Duvall use historic facts and the medium of the written word to tell the story, German director Margarethe von Trotta chooses to use a fictional story set within the facts and the media of film. Beginning in present day New York, von Trotta?s Rosenstrasse chronicles the journey of Hannah Weinstein to learn more about her mother Ruth?s hidden past as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Hannah travels to Berlin and tracks down Lena Fischer, the German woman who took Ruth in after Ruth successfully hid while the Nazis took her mother. A potential orphan, Ruth encounters Lena in the middle of a crisis where fiction meets history: Lena?s beloved Jewish husband is being held at the former Jewish community center and is waiting to be transported to the countryside.

In von Trotta?s version of the story, the theme of women?s resiliency and strength is as strong as the theme of historic atrocity. Even while Hannah learns about her mother?s past, she is struggling with her mother?s hostility toward her non-Jewish boyfriend. This method is not unusual for historic films and the themes of ethnic identity, relationship and sacrifice are consistent. However, von Trotta allows the fictional story to be cumbersome at times, overshadowing the significance of the historic event for women and for all of humanity.

The fact that the protesters were women is key. Ackerman and Duval write,

By the third day SS troops were given orders to train their guns on the crowd, but to fire only warning shots?. [The women] knew the soldiers would never fire directly at them because they were of German blood. Also, arresting or jailing any of the women would have been the rankest hypocrisy: According to Nazi theories, women were intellectually incapable of political action. So women dissenters were the last thing the Nazis wanted to have Germans hear about, and turning them into martyrs would have ruined the Nazis? self-considered image as the protector of motherhood.

The problem of having 600 women gathered outside one of their holding facilities was one of public relations and of foundational philosophy for the Nazis. In the end, the trade of husbands for reputation was perceived to be worthwhile.

While von Trotta does an excellent job of portraying the helplessness of the women?protest was a last resort if they had any hope of seeing their husbands again?she does not manage to lead the viewer into the ecstasy of the historic significance. One major flaw in the film is that the group of women protesters is always a small, pathetic looking mass of no more than a hundred members, whereas the original group grew from 150 to 600 in one day. Another obstacle to effectiveness is the fact that, while there is plenty of spoken narrative, the ironic situation of the Nazis is never fully revealed. In fact, the role of pulling the right strings is given to Lena?s brother, a respected wounded solder from the German army.

Rosenstrasse is weak in some key respects; however, there is still enough of a story, history and excellent acting to make the film worthwhile viewing. I would encourage viewers to watch it in conjunction with a history lesson from some source, if not Ackerman and Duvall, as background.

Occasionally my mind wanders regarding the potential of non-violent action to address government-perpetrated injustices today. And sometimes, in the course of these daydreams, I run up against the question, ?What good is non-violent protest if the protesters don?t have military might to back them up? Why would they be taken seriously at all?? But then I remember the women of Rosenstrasse, who had no weapons and no army that threatened in the case of their failure. All they had was love and desperate courage. This historic event is the perfect answer for those whose protest to non-violent action is, ?Well, what about Hitler?? Hitler?s regime began to crumble when a group of women became willing to stand up and be seen. Though she misses the mark on historic quality, Margarethe von Trotta tells an important story about the triumph of peace in an engaging, thoughtful way.

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