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Culture

Rosenstrasse Film Criticized for 'Distorting' History

German film maker Margarethe von Trotta's new acclaimed movie "Rosenstrasse" has been criticized for "distorting history," sparking a debate on the combination of the Holocaust with mainstream entertainment.

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Katja Riemann won the award for best actress at the Venice Film Festival for her performance.

Only recently, German film maker Margarethe von Trotta's latest film "Rosenstasse" (Rose Street) made the headlines after lead actress Katja Riemann won a prestigious prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month. Days later, Rosenstrasse is back in the news, this time however, due to a less pleasant reason.

Rosenstrasse, which takes place in Nazi Germany in 1943, depicts the story of a group of non-Jewish women in Berlin, who fought for the release of their imprisoned Jewish spouses by protesting for days in the street where the men awaited their fate.

The film, showing now in German cinemas, has sparked a widespread discussion, following the remarks of German historian Wolfgang Benz, who accuses film maker von Trotta of "distorting history." That, he says, contradicts the aim of the film, which is to show what happened in that cold winter of 1943.

His main criticism concerns the actual release of the prisoners. Benz accuses von Trotta of glossing over an important historic incident by suggesting that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was involved in the prisoners' release and that he freed them because of his infatuation with one of the protesting women.

Purposely ignored facts?

Indeed, the issue of the mens' release has been the cause for debate among historians even before the film was produced. Several books have been published on the women's protest back in 1943 but many questions remain unanswered: How many women took part in the demonstrations - hundreds or thousands? Did the women - as in the film - chant their famous "I want my husband back!" during the protests? And was it Goebbels, who eventually gave in and released them?

Frauenprotest in der Rosenstraße

"Goebbels had nothing to do with the Rosenstrasse and could never have done anything there," Benz claims, saying facts were purposely ignored by those who made the film.

Other historians say the men were not even destined for deportation, but were held in captivity to be used later for hard labor. And some simply claim the legend of those brave women back in 1943 is only based on oral history (the opening credits claim the film is a true story) and therefore does not contain enough historical facts to be made into a film.

The most sensitive subject

So how close does a historic film have to comply with history? It's a question which has not just arisen with Rosenstrasse but one which has affected public debate around a number of films, including Max Fäberbrock 's "Aimée and Jaguar" (1999), criticized for a historical background which "degenerated to a piece of scenery" and one of the most famous, Spielberg's prize winning movie, "Schindler's List" (1995) called by one critic "a tragic heroic deed with preassigned happy-end."

But film maker von Trotta defends Rosenstrasse: "No movie can comply with the daily status of written history." She argues that the "true incidents" as asserted in the film's opening credits concern only the women "who stood there and showed courage" and that whether the film has got all of its facts right or not, is not the main issue.

Plakat Rosenstrasse

Others would agree, saying explaining the horrors of the Holocaust via popular entertainment is a good way of reaching in particular young people, many of whom still lack sufficient knowledge of this particular dark yet important period in German history.

Historians like Siegfried Kohlhammer, however, question the fundamental legitimacy of combining the atrocities of the Holocaust with elements of entertainment: "Does it go together, is it even allowed to go together?"

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