Rosenstrasse. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta.  Los Angeles: Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2003.

Reviewed by Belinda Davis

Rosentrasse is a feature film directed by prominent and prolific German director, screenwriter, and actor Margarethe von Trotta, who has often taken up feminist themes in her oeuvre. This film is a fictionalized account of actual events in 1943 Germany, in which a handful of gentile women, building to some 6000, gathered in Berlin’s Rosen street, where Nazis had detained their Jewish husbands and family members in advance of deportation to Auschwitz. For a week the women kept their place in the face of machine gun fire and threats of their own deportation. Ultimately, in order to prevent more domestic unrest at a time when Germany was already losing the war, Nazi officials released the men to their family members.

Von Trotta clearly wishes to make broadly known the role of these women who successfully faced down the Nazi regime. She presents a view of protest and resistance specific to women, an important but sometimes problematic representation. In von Trotta’s film, there are many levels of resistance, to which we might add her own in making the film as a German woman born in 1942. The film is important in challenging still-dominant models of resistance, particularly but not least with reference to Nazi Germany, models that emphasize virtuous men in positions of power, acting singly or powerfully leading small groups of other men (compare Schindler’s List and enduring German emphasis on the 1944 “July Plot”). The everyday quality of this resistance as it develops is highly compelling in the film.

Still, concerning gender, the story line may be too cut and dried. These women were uniformly strong, courageous, and altruistic, even in the face of an ugly mass of SS officers armed with machine guns, while men seem to have succumbed at the slightest provocation. We see rooms full of captured women and men, but we see only women seeking their spouses’ return. As a generalized message, this is both historically and politically problematic. While the challenge both to masculinized notions of resistance broadly and to women’s role as only victims of the Nazi regime is welcome, the film also offers opportunity to consider its reluctance to offer more ambiguity and messiness in its message. These are useful points of discussion in the feminist classroom. On women’s role as agents in and not just objects of Nazi Germany, students might also read a chapter from Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (1987), in which Koonz argues that women must also be considered for their roles as perpetrators in the regime.1 Students might read one of several articles on the “women historians’ quarrel” (Historikerinnenstreit), a debate among feminist historians on the scholarly and political virtues of attending to women’s roles as supporters as well as victims of the Nazi regime.2 Another direction would be to consider more nuanced views of gender and popular politics.3

1 Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987).

2 See e.g. Atina Grossmann, “Feminist Debates about Women and National Socialism," Gender & History 3, no. 3 (1991): 350-58; or Adelheid von Saldern, “Victims or Perpetrators? Controversies about the Role of Women in the Nazi State,” in Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945, ed. David F. Crew(New York: Routledge, 1994), 141-65. Compare also Elizabeth Harvey, Women and the Nazi East (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003); and Dagmar Reese, Growing up Female in Nazi Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2006). For another historical context, see Antoinette Burton, The Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), on how Victorian women’s rights leaders supported imperialism as a piece of their activism.

3 Compare Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); Temma Kaplan, Taking Back the Streets: Women, Youth, and Direct Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Belinda Davis, “‘Women’s Strength against their Crazy Male Power’: Gendered Language in the West German Peace Movement of the 1980s,” in Frieden - Gewalt – Geschlecht: Friedens- und Konfliktforschung als Geschlechterforschung, ed. J. A. Davy, K. Hagemann, and U. Kätzel (Essen: Klartext, 2005); Mary E. Hawkesworth, Globalization and Feminist Activism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006); and Belinda Davis, “The Private is Political: Gender, Politics, and Political Activism in Modern German History,” in Gendering Modern German History: Rewriting Historiography, ed. Karen Hagemann and Jean H. Quataert(New York: Berghahn, 2007), 107-127.

Belinda Davis, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, is author of Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill 2000), and The Internal Life of Politics: The New Left in West Germany, 1962-1983