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Crimes of the State

Flick Chick


Published February 25, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

Brattleboro may be a long haul from Burlington, but some of us would walk barefoot over frozen tundra to see a movie by Margarethe von Trotta. This writer-director's latest production, Rosenstrasse, will screen early next month at the 13th annual Women's Film Festival in that hip southern Vermont town. It's slated to make its regional premiere during the event, which runs on three consecutive weekends March 5-21.

Although arguably no longer a familiar name in the United States, von Trotta helped shape world cinema in the late 1970s and 1980s with powerful art-house fare such as Marianne and Juliane. That intense motion picture concerns a journalist investigating the suspicious death of her militant sister, who is imprisoned when Deutschland cracks down on domestic terrorism with brute force.

Rosenstrasse, which debuted in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, goes back even further in German history to depict a little-known chapter in the struggle against fascism. Precisely 61 years ago this week the Nazis arrested about 2000 Jews who had intermarried. In the Berlin winter of 1943, hundreds of Aryans protested daily on the street outside a Third Reich detention center, where their spouses were being held before a planned deportation to Auschwitz.

Von Trotta's fictional framework for this true story begins in present-day New York City, where Ruth Weinstein (Jutta Lampe) is mourning the recent death of her husband with rigidly Orthodox rituals. She also expresses disapproval of a perfectly sweet Nicaraguan guy who's engaged to her daughter Hannah, played by the luminous Maria Schrader (of Aimee and Jaguar fame). The young woman is puzzled by her normally secular and open-minded mother's unusual behavior.

Ruth has always been extremely secretive about her childhood in Germany, so Hannah decides to explore the past by traveling there. She learns through friends about Lena Fischer, portrayed with convincing urgency by Katja Riemann in flashbacks to six decades earlier. The character's Jewish husband is among those incarcerated in the cramped fortress.

Lena takes pity on a little girl alone in the crowd of demonstrators: It's Ruth as a child. Her own mother is being punished by the Nazis for a liaison with a Christian man.

A feminist with progressive views, von Trotta is an icon to cineastes of a certain age. Rosa Luxembourg, a 1986 profile of the early 20th-century radical, was yet another highlight in her remarkable career.

The Brattleboro extravaganza -- which benefits the Women's Crisis Center of Windham County -- offers 20 films in all. Rosenstrasse is on the schedule for March 6 and 7 at 4 p.m.

On March 12 there's a sneak preview of Nora Jacobson's Nothing Like Dreaming, about a troubled teen befriended by a reclusive artist. In a sense, perhaps the politically astute Norwich filmmaker, who turned out documentary exposes before tackling features, is a von Trotta for our time and place.

Here's hoping Bill Murray remembers to thank costar Scarlett Johansson if he earns an Oscar Sunday night for Lost in Translation. She was inexplicably missing from his Golden Globes acceptance speech as well as from Sofia Coppola's onstage remarks after winning her best-screenplay award.

Best-actress winner Charlize Theron, who failed to mention her Monster leading lady Christina Ricci, could also benefit from a few lessons in graciousness.

Monster is a disturbing biopic of Aileen Wournos. But it's not the only study of the lethal prostitute to come out this year. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, is a documentary by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. It's on tap at The Roxy in Burlington for an unspecified future date. More on this anon.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which opens this Wednesday everywhere, has grabbed headlines. But another contender in this year's Jew-bashing sweepstakes quietly emerged this fall. The Gospel of John by Philip Saville presents a literal adaptation of the Good News Bible that's surely bad news for the ethnic group often accused of killing Jesus.

The repetitious Gospel depicts a charismatic Messiah recruiting disciples and preaching about his divine birthright. A Roman official wants to spare him; the creepy-looking Pharisees and a mob of their fanatic followers demand crucifixion. Are there undercurrents of anti-Semitism? You bet.

Despite its Bible Belt release strategy, the film -- which never arrived here -- might actually alienate the faithful with its plodding pace. The narration, delivered with God-like authority by Christopher Plummer, consistently describes mundane details already evident onscreen: "He knelt down before Jesus," for example, just after a beggar kneels down before Jesus. Oy vey.