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When the New German Cinema first began to attract international attention back in the mid-’70s, it was a very small club. The notable directors were, basically, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—and the last counted for several people, recalls Margarethe von Trotta, who acted in three of Fassbinder’s early movies.

“Every year, he did four films,” the 62-year-old recalls. “Every festival, there was a film of his. So it seemed as if there were German films everywhere. It was always him. He was a very, very quick director.”

By the time Fassbinder died, in 1982, von Trotta had established herself as a filmmaker. “My wish was always to become a director,” she says. “Acting was only a sort of detour.” Her first film, 1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, was co-directed with her then-husband, Volker Schlöndorff.

Von Trotta went on to make a series of movies about women involved in the political and social upheavals of the ’70s. Later, she traced that interest back into history, yielding 1986’s Rosa Luxemburg and, now, Rosenstrasse. The new film is based on the 1943 protests of so-called Aryan women in Berlin whose Jewish husbands had been arrested and faced deportation to concentration camps. The detainees were held in a former Jewish welfare office at Rosenstrasse 2-4, outside of which as many as 1,000 protestors gathered.

“I wrote two scripts for Rosenstrasse,” says von Trotta, who’s taken a table on the Fairmont Hotel’s patio to escape the air conditioning on a warm July day. “The first one was a bit more large, and the producer said, ‘It’s going to be too expensive—you have to write it down to half of the money.’ I could not just cut some of the scenes, so I had to write it all new.”

Influenced by two documentaries she had seen, von Trotta added the character of Ruth, a girl whose mother had been detained for deportation. Ruth is informally adopted by Lena, the story’s central figure, who’s a Rosenstrasse protester. “In one of the documentaries, a woman was telling that, as a little girl, she could go into Rosenstrasse for one minute, [see] her mother for the very last time, and then never again. So that gave me the point to put in this child, and also to make the story together with Lena, who takes her to protect her. That was fiction. The moment she could go in, that was a true moment.”

The smaller-budgeted script also didn’t get financed, von Trotta explains, because in postreunification Germany “there were only comedies. Everybody wanted to make comedies, and not very sophisticated [ones]. It was not the level of Billy Wilder or Lubitsch.”

A similar thing happened, she notes, after World War II. “In the ’50s, we only did very light films, very banal. Just not to confront ourselves with the past. After the Wall came down, nobody knew exactly what would happen. In a way, it was a great joy. But it was also a shock, because neither the West Germans nor the East Germans thought it could happen then. We all thought it might be in 50 years or 100 years….We didn’t know how to handle it, and with comedies you have not to think about it.”

A silvery blonde in a red suit, dangly red earrings, and a flowing red-and-green scarf, von Trotta doesn’t seem especially Teutonic. Continually fluffing her hair, she evokes Jeanne Moreau more than a distaff Herzog or Wenders. Von Trotta studied in Paris, and she clearly has an affinity for the language. Although her English is good, she sometimes slips into French for emphasis, or gives a Gallic pronunciation to words shared by both languages.

“They say Germans are always serious, and they’re so boring. Nobody waits for comedies of Germans. And all of a sudden they did it. So I was not against it. It was a way to show that we were are able to do that, too. But it was so exclusive”—she says it as if she were on rue Rivoli rather than 24th Street NW. “You had to do comedies. Otherwise, you could do nothing. That was, for me, a little bit…unpleasant.

“So we had to give up, after two years of waiting,” she adds. “And then I started to make television, just to go on living.”

One of the director’s TV projects was a four-part miniseries based on a novel by Uwe Johnson, an East German writer who lived in New York during the ’60s. Jahrestage, von Trotta says, “was sort of a diary of a German woman who lived on Riverside Drive. Her little girl, 10 years old, wants to know where she comes from, the story of her parents. Her mother was born in ’33 in Germany. And so she has to tell her little girl everything, and it goes back to the past in Germany and then back to New York. And I liked this way to tell a story very much.”

By 2002, the director says, “the comedy time was over, and you could start to think about a serious film again. I had to change the [Rosenstrasse] script another time, because you couldn’t propose the same script which was already refused in the past. So I introduced this New York story in the film. All of a sudden, it worked. We could get the money.”

The final script was co-written with American screenwriter and novelist Pamela Katz, who helped create the character of Hannah, the American daughter of a German Holocaust survivor. “I wanted to be…exact,” von Trotta says. “She was very helpful. And it’s always good to have an interlocutor, no?”

The movie was shot at Babelsberger Filmstudios in the former East Germany, a studio that was rehabilitated under Schlöndorff’s leadership. The set that represented the Rosenstrasse had previously been used in Sun Alley, a postunification movie about life in pre-unification East Berlin, as well as in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.

“In a way, it was good, because the studio is really in nowhere country,” von Trotta muses. “It’s in Potsdam, outside of Berlin. All these extras came in every morning, and it was very cold. They had really the same situation as in February ’43. They were isolated. They were freezing. So every day they became more and more a group. Like it was in the past.”

Films such as Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful have been criticized for finding uplift in the Holocaust, but von Trotta doesn’t believe she’s done that. “I think it’s just the opposite,” she says. “When I was in school in the ’50s, and even the early ’60s, the tendency of Germans was to say, ‘We just couldn’t do anything. It was too dangerous.’ In a way they were guilty. But they were all guilty, so nobody was guilty. And now with these women who did something, they can’t stay with their explanation.

“They become really guilty then, when you see people who dared to do something,” von Trotta continues. “It’s like giving them a totally other mirror, where they have to look now. So it’s not to rehabilitate Germans. When you are a coward, you don’t like to see someone who is not. It’s much better to say, ‘We are all cowards,’ no?”

Despite the example of the Rosenstrasse protesters, von Trotta doesn’t see Nazism as an exclusively male error. “We got the right for women to vote in 1919. Other countries, the women get it only after the Second World War….Rosa Luxemburg and these people fought that women could have the right to vote. But what did these women do with their vote? They voted mainly for Hitler. So I think sometimes it would have been better if they had no vote”—she laughs—“and perhaps only after the Second World War. So many women were just obsessed by Hitler.”

Von Trotta has a reputation as a political filmmaker, but she contends that her political movies are simply better known. “Everybody always thinks that I do only these films,” she says. “Sometimes I’m looking outside and I’m doing political or historical, and then I’m looking inside and it’s not political at all.

“I was always interested in history, but always from a very personal point of view. Not that I say, ‘Now I have to do a film about this time.’ I must find an emotional link to a person or some persons. I don’t say, ‘Now I have to do a film dealing with Nazis,’ and then I just invent something. It’s always a rendezvous—a rencontre—with a person or persons.

“We have such a very strong and a cruel history to tell,” she continues, “and you have to also know the past before the past. For me, Rosa Luxemburg is in a way the first victim of fascism. Because the people who killed her, later they became Nazis. So the whole century, you have to know everything, even to understand the present.” —Mark Jenkins