Germany Year Zero (1948, Germany/Italy)
Germany Year Zero is the final leg of Roberto Rossellini’s Neorealistic Trilogy. After spending time in the streets of Rome in Rome, Open City and following the Allied invasion of Italy beginning in Sicily and ending in Fiorentina in Paisan, Rossellini set up production in the one location no other Italian neorealist film ever went to - Germany itself. Specifically, the film is set in the heart of immediate postwar Berlin.
Keeping with the traditions of the brief, but decidedly influential Italian neorealist movement, Rossellini hired non-professional actors and shot some of the film on location (he used soundstages for the first time in his trilogy), amidst the ruins of the bombed-out ruins of the city. With these decisions, Rossellini captures a Germany not often seen due to post-war Allied censorship and propaganda. The totality of the destruction in Berlin is remarkable as is the film itself.
Rossellini’s custom was to find his cast from people he found out wandering the street. For his leading actor, he found eleven-year old acrobate Edmund Meschke and was struck by Meschke’s resemblence to his own son, Romano. Romano Rossellini had died earlier that year and thus the film begins with this dedication:
This film is dedicated to the memory of my son Romano. - Roberto Rossellini
Like in Paisan two years before, there was not set screenplay and Rossellini had his actors improvise throughout all of shooting. Adding to the realism is that the Berliners walking past the camera generally ignored the presence of the rolling cameras. Given the divided Allied occupational zones of the city and the conditions that were present, the Berliners had other things on their mind rather than pander to the cameras as Angelenos, New Yorkers, Londoners, or Parisians might.
Germany Year Zero tells the story of a young boy living with his older siblings and ailing father and assumes a painful, pessimistic coming-of-age narrative - far from the escapist entertainment worldwide audiences were demanding at this time. The Kohler family each have their own distinct urges and problems.
The only daughter Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) obtains cigarettes by going out late at night with the Allied soldiers and is tempted to prostitute herself to gain extra money. Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) is a former Nazi soldier who fought until the last minute and is hiding something - he refuses to register with the police and get a ration card in fear of retribution. Whether this fear is warranted or not, Rossellini makes that ambiguous. Their father (Ernst Pittschau) is bed-ridden, and is of no productive use for anyone - he admits so quite often. The divisions in the family are not just occupational, but political. The father’s retrospective remorse for the German people not taking action against the rise of Nazism makes for some uncomfortable clashes with Karl-Heinz.
And little Edmund (Meschke) tries to find work on the black market, with the help of his former school teacher, Mr. Rademacher (Hans Sangen, uncredited), who is heavily implied to harbor pedophilic tendencies. With some unorthodox advice from Mr. Rademacher, Edmund slowly sells his soul to the devil. Perhaps this is similar to the though process Karl-Heinz formulated in his head as Hitler rose to power. Indeed, there is an eerie scene as Edmund is selling a record player to two American soldiers and brings out an LP that recorded a speech by Hitler. As the deceased dictator drones, Rossellini employs quick cuts to highlight the ruins of the city. One shot has an older man and a young boy standing, hand-in-hand amid rubble - burying the ghosts of obliterated dreams under ruins and the basic instinct to live on.
This lack of introspection and self-reflection cost the Germans dearly as their leaders had them plummeting toward war. And as Edmund, too, takes more advice from Mr. Rademacher, he also plummets towards the destruction of his own soul and his innocence is twisted into something unfathomable. Sometimes rooting one’s life perceptions in the past - whether it be a pedophilic school teacher, Nazism, or something even more trivial - is destructive.
Germany Year Zero, just like Rome, Open City and Paisan, ends in an act of stunning violence. It is perhaps the most pessimistic of the three endings in Rossellini’s unofficial trilogy.
Edmund embodies the Germany youth whose souls were destroyed by past-driven impulses of their elders. But unlike in the novel and film All Quiet on the Western Front, this damage occurred far from any pitched battlefield. Once the youth embarked upon their destination, a part of them was killed during the Second World War… whether or not they ever returned from service.
Though not as aestheticaly sophisticated as the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism arose out of humanistic necessity - one reason I prefer the latter over the former. It attempted to ask questions in order to clarify the aftermath of World War II on ordinary people and often found itself obscuring the absolute truths and asking even more questions.
But there are no answers to the suffering. There are no answers to what might have been if history had been significantly altered for the Germans. There are no answers to the souls shattered, the lives lost through war, even in civilian environments.
There are no answers because those living in postwar Germany in 1948 had no time for answers.
My rating: 8/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating.