#499 Germany, Year Zero
1948 // Italy // Roberto Rossellini
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Roberto Rossellini’s venture into the realm of realism on his war-torn homeland in Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) had portrayed the German, aka the Nazi, as a pure corruption with hubristic personality and introverted sexuality, or otherwise a nameless, faceless abstraction of evil. For his next entry, made immediately after the pre-mature death of Rossellini’s young son and amidst the scandalous affair with actress Anna Magnani, Rossellini turned his attention to the war enforcers and illustrated a post-war occupied Germany from a child-eye perspective. The result, Germany, Year Zero, was a sympathetic work diverted to the innocent children of a country sinned for bringing atrocities and an observation on the philosophical causes of that particular human atrocity.
But would it looks too much a German sympathizer after all? The answer is a definite no. In the American release of Germany, Year Zero, there’s a prologue with a narration justifying the existence of the film. “This film is not an act of accusation against the German people, nor yet a defense of them. It is simply a presentation of the facts.” As the two preceding works, Rossellini’s intention was to, again, document the present and bear as a witness of the history. So what strikes me the most profoundly is the sights of the ruin and rubble and the kids hopscotching around them. One of them was Edmund (Edmund Meschke), a 12-year-old boy still young enough to be called a child even though his childlike state is irrevocably disappearing with the family burden he needed to bear.
Edmund’s ailing father (Ernst Pittschau) was bed-ridden and his ex-soldier brother Karl-Heinz (Franz Krüger) remained jobless and inapplicable to ration card as he’s hiding from capture from the allied force. The burden of bringing food and money rested on Edmund and Edmund’s older sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) who worked in a nightclub targeting the Allied troops. But the world held no sympathy on the feeble. Edmund’s landlord constantly badmouthing Eva whoring at night and their father as a worthless liability; gas, electricity and food are rare precious; streets were pervaded with degrading teenagers and paedophile teacher (Erich Gühne) that befriended Edmund. Edmund’s paedophilic teacher Henning embodied the moral depravity known as Nazism, very much similar to the lesbian Nazi in Rome, Open City, both served as an emblematic sign of corruption.
The sole relief Edmund’s family got, albeit temporary, was their father being sick enough to be admitted in the hospital, thereby one less mouth to feed in several days. Yet the problem still remained unsolved. During Edmund’s desperate cry for help from the ineffectual, corrupted adults, teacher Henning explained the Nazi philosophy that the strong was meant to survive and the weak to be perished, hence he must accept his father’s condition. In addition to the father’s complaints that it would be the best if he was dead, Edmund resorted to poisoning his father. During the finale, after his father’s death and realizing the sin he had done, Edmund wandered through the Berlin ruins aimlessly which slowly culminated to his suicide. He passed a bombed-out church in which the sound of an organ filled the urban space with solemnity, foreshadowing the final death. Photographed by Robert Juillard, the little figure of Edmund was overwhelmed by the barely standing buildings, like Antonioni’s use of engulfing modern architecture in composition, it accentuated the vulnerability and alienation of a child who was supposed to be enjoying his childhood instead of facing the dilemma of life and death.
In my opinion, Germany, Year Zero was the epitome of neorealism in the War Trilogy. Rossellini made the best use of exterior shots in Germany, even though the interiors were recreated in the studio latter in Rome, the film was exuberant with a devastating sense of realism clashing with artificiality. At one point Edmund played a phonographic recording of one of Hitler’s speeches to sell to the occupying Allied troops, the uncanny voice of Hilter permeated in the rubble of the Reichs Chancellory, by that Rossellini captured the ghost of war and horror by celluloid. The fate of Edmund, and other children like him, no matter Italian or German, were the extension of the never-ending atrocities, it is the fact that Rossellini concerned and exhibited.