Labored storytelling defeats sterling intentions in Rosenstrasse, German writer-director Margarethe von Trotta’s stilted fictional drama based on a little-known episode in Nazi history: In early 1943, on the Berlin street of the title, hundreds of Jewish men married to Aryan women were locked up for deportation to concentration camps. The spontaneous persistence with which those non-Jewish wives eventually effected the release of their loved ones, by gathering in growing numbers each day (sometimes at gunpoint) on Rosenstrasse, is inspiring, of course. And von Trotta (Rosa Luxemberg) seizes on that glimmer of goodness to ease nervously into a consideration of her country’s terrible legacy.
But in her discomfort, perhaps, she chokes her story with a clanging, artificial setup. The movie opens in modern New York, where German-speaking Ruth (Jutta Lampe) mourns the death of her husband with an attention to Jewish ritual unsettling to her secularly raised grown children; daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader) is particularly farklemt. Yet when a mysterious mourner tells Hannah of a gentile woman who saved Ruth’s life, the heretofore uninterested daughter immediately tracks the savior down in Berlin so that the real movie can begin, in flashback. Katja Riemann plays the beautiful, high-born, Aryan heroine Lena (who also saves her own musician husband) with becoming modesty – but she can’t rescue ”Rosenstrasse” from its own prison of self-consciousness.