Jan Chats with Pamela Katz about the screenplay for her new film ‘Rosenstrasse’
(First Posted in 2004)
Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
ROSENSTRASSE is basically a period drama about the Holocaust told from the German perspective. So I’d like you to start by telling me why it starts in New York?
Why start in New York, why have the modern day perspective? There are two reasons. I will start with the practical reason.
[Director] Margarethe von Trotta started trying to make a film about this subject in the early 90s. She originally wrote a historical script, and she tried to get it made, but at that time the Germans were into doing modern comedies, and nobody wanted to make a historical film. She tried for many years, and at a certain point she gave up. But after SCHINDLER’S LISTopened in Germany in 1994, somebody said to her: “Okay, now it’s time for you to try again.”
And that was the point at which she came to me and asked me to collaborate with her on a new version of her screenplay.
So how did it go?
In the course of working with Margarethe, I discovered that Germans artists feel they have to be very careful about how they present Jews. Even a radical, left-wing, politically-perfect woman like Margarethe von Trotta is going to feel nervous about how she presents a Jewish family.
Her original idea was that the Jewish family should be Orthodox, but I said: “I’m so tired of every Jewish family in German films being Orthodox. Let’s do a family like mine, and let’s try to show the parallels between the assimilated Jews in Germany, the intermarried Jews in Germany that ROSENSTRASSE is really about, and assimilated Jewish Americans today who often intermarry too.”
It was hard for her to accept the lack of precision with which we Jews are Jewish. It was easier for her to think in terms of strict rules. But then I came on board, and I said: “I feel very Jewish and I come from a family that identifies itself as Jewish. But we don’t keep kosher, etc, etc.” That was hard for Margarethe to hear, and it took quite a bit of nerve on her part. A big part of our tension, the creative back and forth between us, came about because I kept saying: “You can do it any way you want to.”
I would get calls from her. “The Jewish expert in Hamburg” or wherever a particular set was located, had said: “This and this isn’t correct.” And I would be in New York screaming: “Anything is correct!” She was the one reading the books and consulting the experts. I cannot tell you the endless Jewish experts who told her: “No Jewish person would blah, blah, blah.”
But when her husband dies, Ruth suddenly wants to know the “right” rituals. I had that exact experience in my own family, which is very secular even though both of my parents were raised Orthodox. I have two sisters, and I noticed that every time one of us got married, suddenly there were all kinds of rules and regulations: “This is what you do and what you don’t do.” And I said: “Huh, what WHO does?”
Recently we had a screening at a Jewish community center in New York, and my mother was in the audience. And somebody said: “I don’t believe that Ruth would suddenly become so religious overnight.” And I said to my mother: “Please stand up.” Maybe we [secular Jews] don’t feel the need for Jewish rituals until something important happens…
I thought it was a great way to introduce the fact that Ruth was dealing with things she had long suppressed. She’s sitting mute on her stool, and the audience can see her having flashbacks of herself as a child. Losing her husband is a huge shock for her, and the loss forces her to remember things…
Yes, that was exactly and precisely the point.
So, our idea was first to renew the project in a practical way so it would matter to a modern audience, and then to take on the logical demographic of a German-Jewish refuge who marries and raises an American-Jewish secular family.
Why do we repress things? There are so many reasons, but in Ruth’s case I think the main reason is the pain of rejection. I know many people like this who found it very difficult to fit in, whatever age they came to America. Some people just fit right in and go forward in that American way, but some people never really find their place. When you are kicked out of your country, well, some people recover and some people don’t.
There are also stories coming out now about elderly people in nursing homes. They start to fail physically and feel vulnerable, and suddenly all these memories that they have been suppressing for years come flooding back to them.
Let’s circle back to what you said at the beginning, Pam. It was only after people in Germany saw SCHINDLER’S LIST that they started saying to Margarethe: “Well maybe you should try to make this story…”?
Yes, that’s very true. Peter Schneider is a very well-known intellectual in Germany. He co-wrote the screenplay for THEPROMISE with Margarethe. More important, he wrote a book called THE GOOD GERMANS, and he even wrote an article with the same name for the Sunday NEW YORK TIMES magazine section two or three years ago. I have it at home.
Click here for an extended quote from Schneider’s NYT article.
This idea of “a good German” is filled with conflict for Germans. Germans were defensive about SCHINDLER’S LIST. They feared the reference to “a good German” because they thought it would sound like an excuse, like saying: “Look, we’re not so bad.” But Schneider says it’s exactly the opposite. The excuse was always: “There was nothing we could do.” Now, the more we recognize people who actually did something, the more Germans have to say: “Guess what? It WAS possible!”
Screenwriter Pamela Katz was born and raised in Manhattan. Her father was a Jewish refugee from Leipzig who left Germany in 1938. He arrived in America in 1940 after studying in Switzerland for two years. His immediate family (his parents and two brothers) all survived the Holocaust. Now deceased, her father was professor of philosophy and education. Her mother is a Psychoanalyst.
Pam received her degree from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and also spent time studying in Europe, first in France, and then at University College London. She entered the film world on the technical side, working as a Camera Assistant for prominent directors such as Spike Lee (JUNGLE FEVER and MO’ BETTER BLUES), Alan Parker (ANGEL HEART), and Martin Scorsese (THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST).
ROSENSTRASSE was her first collaboration with world-renowned director Margarethe von Trotta. Their second collaboration DIE ANDERE FRAU (THE OTHER WOMAN) tells the story of an East German Stasi agent who pretends to marry a West German secretary in order to smuggle secrets from West to East. Like ROSENSTRASSE, it is based on several true stories. Made for German television, DIE ANDERE FRAU is currently showing in the United States at selected film festivals and museum retrospectives.
Pam has also published a historical novel in German called DIE SEERAUEBERIN. The title (“The Sea Robber”) is a reference to the “Pirate Jenny Song” made famous by stage legend Lotte Lenya in Kurt Weill’s THREEPENNY OPERA. She is currently working on an English translation of the novel as well as a related screenplay which will focus on Lenya’s Weimar years.
Pam now lives in Brooklyn with her husband DP Florian Ballhaus and their two daughters, although the day I spoke with her about ROSENSTRASSE, they were on location in Los Angeles.
Director Margarethe von Trotta (left) and screenwriter Pamela Katz (right)
attend a recent Boston screening of DIE ANDERE FRAU with their leading lady
Barbara Sukowa (center). At the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, Sukowa received a
Best Actress award for her charismatic performance in von Trotta’s biopic ROSA LUXEMBURG.
What follows is a specific discussion of the controversial Party Scene
(in which Lena meets Joseph Goebbels). If you don’t want to know
the details, please do NOT read this part of Jan’s chat with Pam
until AFTER you’ve seen ROSENSTRASSE.
Pam, what happens in the big “Party Scene” when Lena and her brother meet Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Nazi Minister of Propaganda)?
First of all, the historical record is very clear: Joseph Goebbels was directly responsible for the release of the Rosenstrasse prisoners, so we needed a way to get Goebbels himself into our film. Margarethe’s son has done scholarly work on Goebbels, so Margarethe knows a lot about him and about his character. He wasn’t just close to Hitler, he was very much in charge of what went on in Berlin. For a woman like Lena, a woman from an aristocratic family with connections, it wasn’t unthinkable that she would make an attempt to go to the top. The idea of getting to Goebbels wasn’t impossible for her, so that became our hook.
The second point we wanted to show in ROSENSTRASSE was that there really were parties like these. There really was a woman like Litzy singing just such song. People were being starved, tortured and exterminated, and all the while there was a Berlin “high life,” with artists and wealthy people who would all comply with the Nazis and have parties like that.
So take them together: the idea of showing the women freezing all night on the Rosenstrasse after ten years of degradation, and side-by-side with that, high society parties are in full swing. That was very important for Margarethe, showing these two parallel lives, underlining the cruelty.
Having Goebbels at a party like this was logical. Litzy, the singer, was actually based on a woman Margarethe spoke with. She was a member of high society, and she befriended everybody, and she helped a lot of Jewish people escape. So Margarethe’s idea was to add a character like Litzy, someone who would enable Lena and her brother Arthur to meet Goebbels at a party and talk to him.
Lena’s plan is to charm Goebbels (because he was a known womanizer) – play her music, be beautiful, find a way to tell him that her husband is a prisoner in the Rosenstrasse building. Because it would be just the kind of thing the Nazis would fear, loyal Aryan women in the street screaming: “Murderers.”
She wants to get the word to the top…
She wants to get the word to the top because that is something the Nazis fear. That was why people in mixed marriages were protected for so long. They’re always portrayed as all-powerful, but the Nazis hated complications, and a Jewish person with an Aryan family was a complication.
The Nazis didn’t overwhelm every conflict; they didn’t shoot Aryan women down in the street. The politics of women was something that they cared about it. So it’s not ridiculous for Lena to approach Goebbels. He was the Minister of Propaganda, he was a politically astute person and a womanizer, that is, somebody who could be influenced by a women.
But your question is: Did she seduce him? When her brother is unzipping her dress, what is happening in that scene? Does Lena sleep with Goebbels? Margarethe has already answered that question. She says: “If Lena is about to sleep with Goebbels, then I would show Goebbels pulling down her zipper!”
What Margarethe does show is that Lena can’t even toast Goebbels with a glass because her hand is trembling so much. She can’t play the piano for this monster, not really. For Margarethe and for me, it was obvious that she doesn’t go “all the way.” She starts crying. She says to her brother: “You have to talk him. I can’t do it.”
What you know, as the audience, is that Arthur does talk to Goebbels, so you know that Goebbels knows about the Rosenstrasse protest. Margarethe and I discussed our next step long and hard. As an American, I said: “We have to know exactly what happens next.” I was ready for a voice over; I was ready for explanations. But Margarethe said: “We are telling a story about people, and this is the point where their emotions are at their height. If somebody wants to know exactly what Goebbels said and did next, then he can go look that up.” I admire her restraint!
Our movie shows the bureaucratic order of the Nazi party. So many other films just show you a kind of insane violence. InSCHINDLER’S LIST, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is crazy, irrationally shooting people from the balcony of his villa in the concentration camp. In ROSENSTRASSE, the women tell one another how to get information when their husbands disappear: “Go to the Gestapo.” First you go the police, and then you go to the Gestapo. How incredibly bureaucratic!
Posted below is the final paragraph of Peter Schneider’s article SAVING KONRAD LATTE which appeared in the Sunday NEW YORK TIMES magazine section on 2/13/00. Pam is absolutely correct. If you want to understand ROSENSTRASSE not only as a story about the past but as an admonition for the future, read the full article.
|“In comparison with the number who shared in committing the crime of the Holocaust, or who simply let it happen, the 50 righteous souls who helped [Konrad] Latte were a tiny band. But even if they were only 40, or 30, or 10, those of us who have come after them need to tell their stories and to build on them. In the end, it isn’t the justly admired, death-defying resistance fighters who decide whether a society will succumb to totalitarianism. The success of a dictatorship, like the success of the resistance to it, depends not on a few ”great leaders” but upon the civic virtue of the average citizen. Bertolt Brecht’s too often quoted warning — Unhappy the land that needs heroes!” — cries out for revision. In a society of conformists and cowards, the courage of a few death-defying heroes redeems no one.”
© Jan Lisa Huttner (8/24/04)