Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse , from a screenplay by Ms. von Trotta and Pamela Katz, is a fictionalized version of a heroic event that took place in Berlin in February 1943, when “Aryan” wives rose up against the imprisonment and eventual deportation of their Jewish husbands to the death camps. Known as the Rosentrasse Protest (for the building where the men were held captive), this was one of the few-if not the only-successful anti-Nazi demonstration in the history of the Third Reich.
Ms. von Trotta had been trying to get this story to the screen for more than a decade, but was unable to get financing until very recently. As she told Robert Sklar in a recent interview in Cineaste magazine, she decided to update the material using a New York–Berlin flashback structure contributed by her co-screenwriter, Ms. Katz.
Ms. von Trotta also noted in the interview a reluctance, until very recently, for German filmmakers to deal with the brutal disposition of Jews during the Nazi period: “I think there was fear of not finding the right tone, the right way to handle it. When I saw Schindler’s List , for me it was right that an American Jew did the film about a man who saved Jews …. I think that it was absolutely necessary that it was done outside Germany. Because we had done so few films about that era, to come up with a film about a ‘good German’ who saved Jews would have been a disaster. For myself, I could not imagine going to Auschwitz or another camp and trying to reconstruct what happened there. I would be too ashamed. As a German, we are still too frightened to attempt it.”
Rosenstrasse begins in New York in the mid-90’s, with the recently widowed Ruth Weinstein (Jutte Lampe) sitting shiva for her late husband. She performs the rituals in such an exclusionary Orthodox manner as to shock her more casually Jewish children, who recall their late father as equally casual in his observance of their faith. Thus, from the beginning a mystery is posed: Why has Ruth suddenly reverted to a long-discarded orthodoxy that now makes her deeply hostile to the “mixed” marriage pending between her daughter, Hannah (Maria Schrader), and the latter’s Guatemalan fiancé, Luis Marquez (Fedja van Huêt)-and this despite the fact that Luis is almost one of the family, as the business protégé of Hannah’s late father? The very subject of mixed marriages now seems unbearably painful for Ruth. Then Hannah finds an old photo of Ruth with a beautiful blond woman, taken in Berlin, which gives her a clue to her mother’s suddenly traumatic behavior.
Hannah sets out to solve the mystery by heading to Berlin, where she almost miraculously tracks down the woman in the photo, Lena Fischer (Doris Schade), now 90 years old. Posing as an American journalist, Hannah is granted an interview by her mother’s onetime gentile rescuer. Then she stumbles onto another story involving the younger Lena (played by Katja Riemann), who was born Lena von Eischenbach, the daughter of a Prussian aristocrat, and who was disowned by her family after she married Fabian Fischer (Martin Feitel), a fellow musician who happened to be Jewish.
When the film flashes back to 1943, it feels as though we’ve shifted from minor to major key: Suddenly the emotional melody of the individual characters is thrust into the symphony of history. The essential story of Ms. von Trotta’s original conception comes bursting through the uninvolving subplot of Ruth Weinstein’s shiva-centered angst. The story celebrates the triumph of a timeless and universal principle over one of the most evil social systems in recorded history, a tale of the uncompromising love that a group of wives experienced for their mortally threatened husbands. By focusing this love through the eyes of Lena, Ms. von Trotta ennobles all the women who braved death in the Rosenstrasse Protest.
The 8-year-old Ruth and 38-year-old Lena meet for the first time outside the walls of the Rosenstrasse, the former Jewish welfare office converted by the Nazis as a holding pen for Jewish spouses until they could be shipped East to the camps. The loophole in the original Nuremberg decrees against Jews, which gave protection to Jews in mixed marriages for almost a decade, was finally closed in 1943. Young Ruth’s Jewish mother suffered the additional misfortune of having her panicky Aryan husband divorce her to save his own skin. (Hence Ruth’s lifelong suspicion of mixed marriages.) Still, when the film ends with Ruth happily presiding over the mixed union of Hannah and Luis-albeit in a quintessentially Jewish marriage ceremony-the film’s structural flaws become apparent.
The story’s emotional core is left behind on the Rosenstrasse, as the released Jewish husbands reunite one by one with their non-Jewish wives, relaying a steady stream of banalities as if nothing momentous had come to pass. One husband apologizes to his wife for keeping her waiting and is quietly told that he’s forgiven. For his part, Fabian Fischer apologizes to the indomitable Lena for the growth of his beard and says he’d like to shave before embracing her. Lena assures him that he’s just fine and then introduces him to their adopted “child,” Ruth, who’s coming home with them. Fabian nods reassuringly in agreement.
The rest is anticlimactic. Still, the heart of the film is so strong that its images of love and devotion shared by wives and husbands on the edge of an abyss remain indelibly etched in one’s memory.
Cédric Kahn’s Red Lights , from a screenplay by Mr. Kahn, Laurence Ferreira-Barbosa and Gilles Marchand, based on the novel by Georges Simenon, takes place almost entirely on the roads from Paris to the South of France at the height of the holiday season. For Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a disgruntled borderline alcoholic, and his wife, Helene (Carole Bouquet), a seemingly routine road trip to pick up their children from summer camp becomes a violent nightmare.
Along the way, we discover that Antoine and Helene have reached a point of crisis in their 15-year marriage, and that he’s jealous of his wife’s greater success in her media career than he’s achieved with his dull position in an insurance company. For her part, Helene is angered not only by her husband’s furtive drinking, but by his insistence on lying about it-not only to her, but to himself. Their running argument reaches a crescendo when Antoine turns off the main highway to escape the bumper-to-bumper traffic, only to find himself victimized by one detour after another. When Antoine insists on stopping off at a roadside tavern for one last drink for the road, Helene reaches the absolute end of her patience. Because she threatens to drive off without him, he takes the car keys with him. When Antoine re-emerges from the bar, however, he discovers that Helene is gone. She’s left him a note telling him that she’s taking the train to their destination.
He drives off in a frenzy to catch her before she boards the train and, failing that, tries to meet her at each stop along the way. When he finally realizes that he’s missed her completely, he settles down at the last train stop for some serious drinking, which involves mixing beer with Scotch-after which he recklessly accepts a request from a dour bar companion for a lift to Bordeaux.
What happens next is a descent into a life-threatening hallucinatory experience that is curiously linked to his wife’s disappearance. What is unexpected is that so much of Red Lights is devoted to exploring the depths of one man’s self-hatred and apparently limitless capacity for self-destruction. Mr. Darroussin is well cast as a masochistic nebbish, and it’s difficult to imagine any mainstream American movie staying so long with such a hopelessly uncharismatic character.
Ms. Bouquet’s Helene has a surprisingly brief part, despite which she becomes a tantalizing, invisible force by her very absence, ultimately motivating her husband to pull himself together into some semblance of a responsible adult. In the end, husband and wife are reunited, but not with a frank exchange about what has kept them apart. Both characters seem to have arrived at the decision to start their lives again with a clean slate, free of any confessional angst. The placidly happy ending may therefore constitute some sort of fool’s paradise, but that’s where the film leaves both them and us.
Red Lights is a strange film, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it, or what Aristotle would have thought of it were he writing a movie supplement to his Poetics today. At the very least, it’s one of the more original film experiences you’ll find this year.
In fact, Mr. Darroussin and Ms. Bouquet make Antoine and Helene such compelling characters that their lives seem to become precious by their very fragility. And never before has the supposedly liberating open road seemed so perpetually menacing and so depressingly unfulfilling.
Little Dreamer Girl
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s It’s Easier for a Camel … , from a screenplay by Ms. Tedeschi, Noémie Lvovsky and Agnès de Sacy, could be dismissed (but shouldn’t be) as a rich woman’s ego trip-namely Ms. Tedeschi’s, whose privileged Italian family emigrated to France in the 1970’s to escape the wave of kidnappings by the Red Brigades. The title of the film is derived from the warning of the Gospels: “It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” Heaven knows that Ms. Tedeschi’s only slightly fictional Federica is a poor little rich girl overendowed since childhood with a lively imagination that consoles her for the failure of reality to live up to her creative fantasies.
As the picture begins, Federica’s career as a successful playwright is slowly falling apart; her now-married boyfriend is pressuring her (after having dumped her) to renew their affair; and her current lover, a left-wing history teacher from the lower classes, resents her family’s wealth. To make matters worse, her younger sister is barely talking to her because she’s jealous of her older sister’s sense of direction; her brother is a self-centered wastrel who has never worked a day in his life and has never wanted to; and her loving father is terminally ill. Yet Federica still persists in daydreaming via animated cartoons that illustrate her wistful reconciliation of all the discordant elements in her life.
If Ms. Tedeschi were drop-dead gorgeous, one would have to hate her pampered Federica, but her face is a little too obtrusively long, her features somewhat too pronounced for cover-girl purposes-and yet her infectiously generous smile, and her marvelously sensitive listening talent as a gifted actress, make us believe in her tortured individuality and her frustrated emotional aspirations.
She is brilliantly supported by the seriocomic performances of Chiara Mastroianni as her hapless sister; Jean-Hugues Anglade as her left-wing boyfriend; Dennis Podalydes as her brazen lover; her real mother, Marysa Borini (who is not a professional actress), as her fictional mother; Roberto Herlitzka as her father; Lambert Wilson as her comically slothful brother; and Pascal Bongard as her priestly confessor, awkwardly transformed into an amateur analyst.
This is a rich comedy that leaves you suspended, with all its hubbub, between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry.