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Culture

Katja Riemann Gets Best Actress Prize in Venice

Germany's Katja Riemann wins her first major international award at the 60th Venice Film Festival, where she picks up the best actress award for her role in a film about small acts of heroism in Nazi Germany.

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Margarethe von Trotta's movie "Rosenstrasse" now looks set to boost German's film industry

"Rosenstrasse," directed by Margarethe von Trotta, tells the story of a group of women who stood up to Hitler's regime to demand the release of their Jewish husbands.

The prize could prove to be a long-awaited international breakthrough for the 39-year-old actress. Riemann may be a household name in Germany, but so far, she's an unfamiliar face to international audiences. "Rosenstrasse," which hits German cinemas on Sept. 18, looks set to change that.

Germany's most bankable actress

Born in Bremen in 1961, Riemann studied ballet, piano, flute and guitar as a teenager. She soon gave up her youthful dream of becoming a dancer, instead choosing to concentrate on acting. She studied at Hanover's College of Music and Theater and got her first break before graduating when the film and theater director Peter Beauvais cast her in "Summer in Lesmona," a six-part series that earned her a prestigious Adolf Grimme Prize in 1988.

After a spell in theater, primarily with the Münchner Kammerspiele in Munich, she landed several television roles and soon began carving out a film career. In "No Mention of Violence" ("Von Gewalt keine Rede"), made in 1990, she acted her far more experienced colleagues -- including Heiner Lauterbach -- off the screen and won Germany's "Goldene Kamera" award.

Her first commercial success came two years later with "A Man For Every Situation" ("Ein Mann für jede Tonart"). The hits followed in rapid succession. In 1993, Katja von Garnier's short film "Making Up!" ("Abgeschminkt!") picked up the German Film Prize, the 1994 screwball comedy "Maybe, Maybe Not" ("Der bewegte Mann") was a box office smash, while 1995's "Talk of the Town" ("Stadtgespräch"), 1997's "Comedian Harmonists" and 1999's "Bandits" consolidated her reputation as Germany's most bankable actress.

An unexpected success

The domestic film industry has long seemed too small to contain Riemann. In recent years, she's branched out, working as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, publishing a children's book and releasing a solo CD. Her last major movie success before "Rosenstrasse" was in the children's comedy "Bibi Blocksberg," and since then she's appeared in a number of foreign productions, including Colleen Murphy's "Desire" (Canada) and Josée Dayan's TV-biopic "Balzac" (France).

"Rosenstrasse" tells the true story of a group of women who managed to prevent the deportation of their Jewish husbands to a concentration camp. The courageous commitment of these women saved many people from certain death. It's a role Riemann could have been born to play -- her cool, Nordic looks and reserved manner made her an obvious choice for the part.

Of herself, Riemann has said "I may be a vain person, but I'm not a vain actress," and this is certainly apparent in her calm portrayal of a housewife who finds hidden reserves of strength. It was an unassuming performance and she was far from the favorite for best actress award.

Widely tipped to win was U.S. actress Naomi Watts, who appeared in the harrowing "21 Grams," the latest film by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Sean Penn, who also starred, won best actor award.

A boost for German film

Riemann's win in Venice also marks a much-needed triumph for German cinema, which has suffered of late from an economic and creative slump. Director Margarethe von Trotta is herself no stranger to Venice, and took home the Golden Lion in 1981 for "The German Sisters" ("Die bleierne Zeit"). But in recent years, German feature films have been few and far between on the international festival circuit.

Things now seem to be looking up, with the positive response to "Rosenstrasse" coming on the heels of Wolfgang Becker's internationally acclaimed "Goodbye Lenin!" and Caroline Link's Oscar-winning movie "Nowhere in Africa."

The Venice Film Festival has long been prized as a purely cinematic venue championing quality movies. Now that Germany can point to success both in Venice and at the Oscars, it seems its film industry may well be learning how to conquer both commercial and art-house markets. And for Riemann, there's much to be proud of.