Like her characters, the director waited

Special to The Times

There’s a funny thing about collective guilt. When it’s spread around too widely, it thins and dissipates. This phenomenon has long troubled filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta in regard to the German attitude toward World War II and the Holocaust. Although Germans had been masterminds of these tragedies, when the war was over, she says, “there was this sense that we were all guilty, and nobody is guilty.”

Her latest film, “Rosenstrasse,” retells a little-known incident from that calamitous period. At the start of the war, Jewish men married to Aryan women were exempted both from military service and from being sent to concentration camps. They were, however, forced to work in factories producing munitions and other items supporting the war effort.

But in Berlin in early 1943, they were suddenly rounded up and placed in detention at several locations -- presumably gathering points before being shipped to death camps. One location was on Rosenstrasse, a street near Alexanderplatz. Discovering this, their wives showed up in front of the building, desperately trying to glimpse their loved ones, to get messages through, to learn their fate.


At first they showed up randomly. Then they began arriving in force, accompanied by family and friends -- from 150 to 1,000 at a time according to various accounts -- constituting a silent protest. Several times armed Gestapo and police would chase them away, but they would simply return. And watch. And wait.

Von Trotta, who also wrote the script, begins her story in present-day New York. When Hannah’s father dies, she (Maria Schrader) realizes how little she knows about her mother, Ruth (Jutta Lampe), a staunchly Jewish woman who was brought up in Germany. Traveling to Berlin, Hannah locates Lena (Doris Schade), a 90-year-old woman who recalls how she met Ruth, then just a little girl, during the protests on Rosenstrasse. It turns out that Ruth’s mother was put in detention there.

The characters are composites, says the director on a recent visit to Los Angeles, which she pieced together from interviews and extensive research. A small woman with forceful presence, Von Trotta, 62, wears a red silk blouse with an equally colorful scarf. Her blue eyes are piercingly serious as she talks.

She heard about Rosenstrasse in the early 1990s and met Daniela Schmidt, who had made a documentary called “Resistance in Rosenstrasse.” Schmidt in turn helped Von Trotta connect with some of the living witnesses to the event, whom Von Trotta interviewed at length. Eventually, she wove their reminiscences into a narrative script. Volker Schlondorff, a noted director (“Tin Drum”) and head of Babelsberger Filmstudios (and also her ex), tried to get funding for it, but his efforts proved unsuccessful.

“In 1994-95 in Germany there was a big rush to comedy,” Von Trotta explains. “After two years of trying, I gave up and I made theater and opera and television -- good films, not just banal ones.” Then in 1999 Martin Wiebel, a producer with whom she had worked before, suggested trying again. Von Trotta wrote a new version of the script, introducing the New York element, which interested several producers enough that they managed to raise the necessary funding from several agencies in Germany as well as the Dutch company Get Reel Production.

Product of the New Wave

Acting was where she started her professional career, appearing in the films of German New Wave directors Schlondorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Eventually, Von Trotta began working on screenplays and directed her first film, “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” in conjunction with Schlondorff in 1975. From that point, she began directing on her own, always from scripts she wrote or co-wrote.


Von Trotta has long been known for making films that address social and political issues, as “Katharina Blum,” “Rosa Luxemburg” and “The Pledge” did. Most feature strong female protagonists as well. Early on, male journalists would pointedly question her on this, as if it were an aberration, and she would shoot back, “Would you ask the same question to a male director?” Now she’s more relaxed and says, “I’m more interested when the story’s about a woman. I accept that.”

“It also comes from my own biography,” she admits. “I was raised by my mother. She was a very emancipated, intelligent woman.”

She soon found herself identifying with the women in the Rosenstrasse protest. “We were always told after the war that nobody could do anything. I found this very depressing,” Von Trotta says. “Instead, here’s a story where they did something. Here are people who had courage.”

Destiny beckons

Von Trotta had to call up a little courage herself when she tackled the script again and hoped that something would come of it after five years.

“If you ask me why I went on, I couldn’t even explain,” she says. “It was something inside stronger than me. I believe a little in destiny, and when things are not working, there’s a reason. Perhaps that was not the time to make the film; now is the time to make it.” Indeed, a recurring theme in her work is the importance of individual choices and of personal integrity in the face of overwhelming odds. “I had to wait so long to become a filmmaker,” she says. “There were so many years passing by. I learned to be patient, to persevere.

“Young people are always asking me what’s the secret of becoming a filmmaker. I say to them, ‘Talent is something, but what it really takes is perseverance and not giving up too easily.’ ”