Fons Rademakers' "The Rose Garden" (at the Westside Pavilion) certainly accomplishes what it sets out to do: Call attention to an especially hideous Nazi atrocity and show how difficult it is to bring the responsible Nazi commandant to justice. Rademakers, the veteran Dutch director whose similarly themed "The Assault" won an Oscar, suggests quite forcefully how a segment of the German population continues to resist coming to terms with the Holocaust.
"The Rose Garden" is further bolstered by an impassioned performance by Liv Ullmann as a tenacious Frankfurt public defender and by Maximilian Schell's fine portrayal of a haunted, ravaged Holocaust survivor. However, Rademakers, working in English--not even the smallest bit player sounds dubbed--is hampered by a script that does not serve him nearly as well as that of "The Assault."
What is factual about the film is that on April 20, 1945, Hitler's 56th birthday, 20 Jewish children, most of whom had been deliberately infected with tubercular bacilli in their lungs at the Neuengamme concentration camp, were taken to the basement of a Hamburg school and given morphine injections and then hanged. The executions were ordered because British troops were only six kilometers from the port city.
Around this horrendous incident, screenwriter Paul Hengge has imagined this plot: Schell, brother of two sisters who apparently died at the school, has come from his home in Ecuador to West Germany determined to prevent the one-time commander of Neuengamme (Kurt Hubner) from leaving the country, just as yet another investigation of his responsibility in the atrocity is about to be launched.
To a large extent, the language barrier creates confusion and uncertainties in the narrative. Obviously, if we have to have an English-language version of a German film, it's better that it not be the usual dubbed kind. Even so, we're never quite sure where we are--even on a second viewing--as the film switches endlessly from Hamburg to West Berlin to Frankfurt. Other key matters pose unanswered questions: Why, once Ullmann realizes that Schell is a camp survivor, doesn't it occur to her immediately that the man he strikes out at violently is most likely an old Nazi? Since Schell's victim is an old Nazi, why does he want to press charges against Schell? Is it out of arrogance because he has successfully evaded justice in the past? Probably, but we never know for sure.
Schell, 59, plays a man his age but has made himself look a haggard 10 or even 20 years older, a man so traumatized he can barely speak in his own defense. He is the film's linchpin, since Ullmann has been handed so many anti-Nazi speeches that not even she can keep them from becoming wearying in their repetitiveness. Peter Fonda, whose suggestion of a German accent allows him to blend in with the cast, is effective as Ullmann's suave, ambitious ex-husband (and ex-law partner) whose gradual response from indifference to concern is persuasive. Gila Almagor, the grande dame of the Israeli cinema, makes a brief but stunning appearance.
What "The Rose Garden" (rated PG-13 for violence and adult themes) has to say is too important not to regret that it wasn't said better.