“The Rose Garden” – film and historic context
The film’s cinematic treatment of the National Socialist period
The Motion Picture Rating Agency in the context of Germany’s remembrance culture
Artur Brauner, whose production company CCC-Filmkunst LLC produced “The Rose Garden,” played a key role in the way West German cinema dealt with the Holocaust and National Socialism: a Holocaust survivor himself, he has produced films that aim to remember National Socialist crimes and their victims since 1948. The film “The Rose Garden” was directed by Dutch filmmaker Fons Rademakers. It was shot in English with Maximilian Schell and Liv Ullmann in the leading roles. The supporting cast includes Hanns Zischler and Peter Fonda among others. When it was reviewed by the German Motion Picture Rating Agency Deutsche Filmbewertungsstelle in Wiesbaden, the film did not yet have a distributor; it was later distributed by the Filmverlag der Autoren and, after premiering in Los Angeles on December 20, 1989, it opened in German movie theaters on November 15, 1990. In addition to its “highly recommended” rating, “The Rose Garden” was nominated for the German Film Awards Deutscher Filmpreis in 1990, and Liv Ullmann was nominated for a Golden Globe as actress in a leading role. Despite the acknowledgment this rating by the German Motion Picture Rating Agency Deutsche Filmbewertungsstelle represents, the film received only mediocre reviews and was not particularly successful at the box office.
“The Rose Garden” is one of the films produced by Artur Brauner which he calls “films against oblivion.” In the course of his career as a film producer, during which he mainly produced entertainment films, he made more than 20 of these films that were meant to remember National Socialist crimes. This commitment to remembrance and commemoration is present in Brauner’s entire work. One characteristic of these films is their attempt to combine remembrance and entertainment. The fact that Brauner chose to produce them although they were not likely to be profitable shows that they were and continue to be important to him personally. 21 of these films, including “The Rose Garden,” were added to the Yad Vashem online film database in 2009. Yet Brauner’s efforts had not always been acknowledged in the way “The Rose Garden” was when it received its rating from the German Motion Picture Rating Agency Deutsche Filmbewertungsstelle. On the contrary: Artur Brauner’s films about National Socialism and the Holocaust regularly flopped both commercially and critically. When he wanted to adapt Oskar Schindler’s biography in the 1990s, for example, he was unable to convince the German Federal Film Board that it was a worthwhile subject.
The film tells the story of Jewish Holocaust survivor
who returns to
Germany. At the
airport he recognizes concentration camp
commander Arnold Krenn and attacks
him. He is arrested and represented in court by lawyer
(Liv Ullmann). Since
Reichenbach is highly confused and distressed,
she tries to reconstruct his life story on her own. Aided by
journalist Georg Pässler
(Jan Niklas), she
finds out that Krenn was involved in the murder
of 20 Jewish children in a
including Aaron Reichenbach’s sisters. It
turns out that Ruth, one of
Reichenbach’s two sisters, actually survived.
More than 40 years later, brother and sister meet again for the first time in
the courtroom. Yet the trial against Krenn is
unsuccessful since he is declared unfit to stand trial and the charges are
dismissed. The film ends with the following epilogue:
“This story is fully fictitious, but resemblance to persons dead or alive is no coincidence.
The killing of the children at Bullenhuser Road actually took place.
The commanding officer in charge of the camp on Bullenhuser Road was declared
permanently unfit to stand trial by a Hamburg court in 1985.
The proceedings against him were therefore halted, proceedings that had already been
halted once in 1967.
The reasoning of the Hamburg prosecutor at the time went as follows:
‘The investigation has failed to provide sufficient evidence that undue pain was inflicted
on the children before they died…
Except for the termination of their lives, no further harm was done to them. They
especially did not have to suffer physically and mentally for very long.’”
“The Rose Garden” thus makes reference to actual historical events: first, to the events occurring at the school on Bullenhuser Damm 92-95 in Hamburg’s Rothenburgsort district, where 20 Jewish children were hanged on the night of April 20 / 21, 1945. They had previously been victims of medical experiments at the Neuengamme concentration camp and were murdered in the school that functioned as a satellite camp when the Neuengamme camp was evacuated. Secondly, it makes reference to the legal prosecution of the perpetrators in two trials (in 1967 and 1985), both of which were unsuccessful and can be regarded as examples of the West German justice system’s failure to prosecute Nazi criminals. “The Rose Garden” is based on the eponymous novel by Paul Hengge and additional research by journalist Günther Schwarberg. It was Schwarberg who initiated the investigation into what occurred at the school on Bullenhuser Damm, and the character of journalist Georg Pässler is based on him.
In 1986, as part of coming to terms with these events, an association called “The Children of Bullenhuser Damm” held an international tribunal at the school that was chaired by former constitutional court judge Martin Hirsch and sought to reveal the justice system’s omissions and foot-dragging. It was motivated by the failure to convict Arnold Strippel, one of the perpetrators in the children’s murder. When Aaron Reichenbach tells his lawyer Gabriele Freund in the film that he wants a tribunal for Krenn, this is a reference to this event. German television journalist Lea Rosh subsequently made a documentary called “Das Tribunal – Mord am Bullenhuser Damm” [The Tribunal – Murder on Bullenhuser Damm], which was screened at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival and broadcast on television. The feature film’s title “The Rose Garden” refers to the rose garden that was planted in the 1980s next to the schoolyard in memory of the murdered children.
Despite weaknesses in its cinematic storytelling “The Rose Garden” is a unique example for films dealing with the Holocaust, not only because it makes the murders at Bullenhuser Damm and the subsequent miscarriage of justice known to a larger audience, but also because it very clearly shows the psychological damage and trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors. More than 20 years earlier another film produced by Brauner titled “Zeugin aus der Hölle” [Witness out of Hell] (working title “Bittere Kräuter” [Bitter Herbs]) was not given the “highly recommended” rating by the German Motion Picture Rating Board Deutsche Filmbewertungsstelle. The central character in “Zeugin aus der Hölle” is also a traumatized Jewish Holocaust survivor who, supported by her lawyer and a journalist, is supposed to testify in a trial against a Nazi doctor. At the time the jury justified its decision with “technical weaknesses.” When a new cut of the film was released on DVD in 2013, it did receive the “highly recommended” rating; the Motion Picture Ratings Agency (renamed Deutsche Film- und Medienbewertung in 2009) referred to its earlier decision, especially stressing unrealistic aspects of the plot that impaired the film’s effect in their opinion. Interestingly, the opinion of the rating commission for “The Rose Garden” highlights the film’s casting, acting performances and its nuanced character development while the film’s treatment of actual historical events is not mentioned at all. There is no specific mention of the film’s subject.
The German Motion Picture Rating Agency Deutsche Filmbewertungsstelle in Wiesbaden is a government agency established in 1951 that rates German and international films upon request for a fee, awarding the quality ratings “recommended” and “highly recommended.” These quality ratings are intended to recommend a film to audiences and to identify productions of particularly great merit, thus providing orientation in a diverse film industry. Films are reviewed by an unsalaried jury made up of experts appointed by each federal state. The jury reviews the film’s quality with regard to its subject, formal aspects and realization. Receiving the quality rating from the Motion Picture Ratings Agency Filmbewertungsstelle may not only result in positive advertising, there also is a fiscal benefit as films awarded the quality rating are exempt from entertainment tax. However, audiences and critics do not necessarily agree with the opinion expressed by the rating agency, as the example of “The Rose Garden” shows.
The rating agency’s decisions can also be understood as an indicator of the themes and portrayals that are considered relevant and appropriate at a particular time and therefore worthy of support. The explanation given by the jury reviewing “The Rose Garden” provides clear evidence of this when it makes reference to its time of release: ten years after the American television series “Holocaust” first aired, which established the fictional and victim-focused Holocaust narrative for a mass audience, the cinematic portrayal of a traumatized survivor was no longer considered uncomfortable or objectionable, but had become well-established in cinema and mass media. The date of the film’s review fell between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s so-called reunification, a time that brought forth new reasons for thinking about the history of one’s country. This creates the impression that the contemporary political situation was of primary importance and considered more significant than the historical events the film is based on. Among the films Artur Brauner produced, this is one of many opposing the Federal Republic’s failure to remember Holocaust victims as well as its perpetrators. As many of his films do, it combines the goal to entertain with the purpose of remembering the Holocaust. The fact that his later productions such as “Hitlerjunge Salomon” [Hitler Youth Salomon] (1989 / 90) gained recognition while earlier films such as “Morituri” (1948) and “Zeugin aus der Hölle” [Witness out of Helll] (1965) were received badly by critics and audiences alike was a result of a change in German society’s attitude towards its Nazi past and the changing culture of remembrance.
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Lea Wohl von Haselberg, Dr. phil., born 1984, was granted her PhD from the University of Hamburg in 2015 for her work "And after the Holocaust? Jewish movie characters in (West-) German movies and TV after 1945".
Lea Wohl von Haselberg, “Against Oblivion” – Cinematic Remembrance in “The Rose Garden” (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 20, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-164.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].