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(2004) ** 1/2 Pg-13
136 min. IDP Distribution. Director: Margarethe Von Trotta. Cast: Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Jutta Lampe, Svea Lohde, Doris Schade.

Margarethe Von Trotta's WWII drama Rosenstrasse can be trying. For many, the Nazi character has been so thoroughly explored that it has lost its dramatic potency; here again, we have the sympathetic officers and the sadistic monsters. Von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) frustrates by constructing the story as a series of interrupted flashbacks from a present-day domestic melodrama. The picture further resembles a TV mini-series by dragging, weightily, beyond the two-hour mark. Nevertheless, Von Trotta makes her points in Rosenstrasse while illuminating a subcultural story of the Holocaust.

In the present-day, a just-widowed woman named Ruth Weinstein (Jutta Lampe) retreats into her own head, sitting shiva and brusquely dismissing her daughter's gentile fiance. Her children fear for her sanity: why is this woman, who has previously shown little sign of religious fervor, suddenly so orthodox? The answer resides somewhere in 1943 Germany, when the Nazis began rounding up Jewish men and women assumed to be protected by their marriage to "Aryan" spouses. There, the the 8-year-old Ruth (Svea Lohde) becomes separated from her mother; coached to find a woman who will take her in, Ruth latches on to Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann), a Christian woman desperately searching for her Jewish husband Fabian (Martin Feifel).

The mixed-marriage Jews are locked down in detention centers, including the converted welfare building at 2-4 Rosenstrasse in Berlin. Inside, the prisoners bemoan the "nightmarish fairy tale" in which they find themselves (one jokes ruefully that perhaps, like Hansel and Gretel, they will be forced into ovens). Outside Rosenstrasse, the men's wives and children assemble and wait hopefully for any sign of their husbands. The heart of the film is here, with the women forming a de facto support group; plotting efforts to free, or even glimpse, their husbands; and steadily finding their voice to cry out, "Give us our husbands back!" That moment is deeply affecting, as is the fleeting appearance of one woman's husband in a high window.

In the present, Ruth's daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader) puts her fiance on hold and begins to investigate her mother's unexpressed past; her discussions with the elderly Lena Fischer (Doris Schade) help Hannah and the audience understand Ruth's psyche. Schrader overplays her minimal role in an attempt to make it larger, but the cast is otherwise sturdy. Riemann and Lohde fare best as the makeshift mother and daughter; Reimann's transformation from a stunning beauty to a worn survivor is likewise quietly powerful.

Rosenstrasse works best as a treatise on the heritage of pain felt in mixed marriages and the unrelenting fear and guilt felt by Holocaust survivors. Ripples of past hardships constantly touch the present, and remind audience surrogate Hannah of how much we take for granted in free society. But Von Trotta's conceptual successes rarely translate into dramatic ones, which suggests that Rosenstrasse might just as soon have been a succinct documentary as a bloated melodrama.

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