Odd as it may seem, given that I was born two decades after the end of World War Two, watching the final film in Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy, Germany Year Zero, brought home visions of the decimated cityscapes from my own urban youth in the wastelands of the industrialized parts of Brooklyn and Queens in the early 1970s. Of course, whereas the whole city of Berlin, as filmed in 1947, was still mostly post-war rubble, there were only city blocks of such abandoned and destroyed buildings, and, instead of having happened in a brief period of a few weeks or months of bombing, it took decades of slow social and civil neglect to get the landscapes that still return to me in dream. But, the end result- poor people who turn to black markets to survive, and who scrape by one another to survive- is just as true. Also true is the psychic toll such takes on children who grow accustomed to such squalor. As some people who grew up in Belfast or Lebanon, or those living right now in Baghdad or other cities laid waste. I state this up front, just to get my own personal leanings toward the film out of the way. In that regard, I should also note that my own European family had folks on both sides of the war: those who died in concentration camps, and then fell behind the Iron Curtain, and those who fled to South America after the war, so I have a sense that both sides in any war suffer greatly, especially those cast in the role of villains, who were merely dragged along for the ride.
And this is the premise of Germany Year Zero, that not all Germans were Nazis, but all suffered because of the Nazis; some for not resisting, others for not repenting. The 73 minute long black and white film follows the travails of the Berlin-based Kohler clan (years before the erection of the Berlin Wall), headed by an ill and dying father and widower (Ernst Pittschau), who is a World War One veteran; his daughter Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) who cannot bring herself to prostitution, even though she goes out with Allied soldiers; his oldest son Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger)- a cowardly ex-Nazi hiding from authorities, and sponging off the family’s meager rations; and the twelve year old youngest son, Edmund (Edmund Moeschke), who has become wise to the black market and thieving ways of the street. The housing authorities have forced five families to share one apartment in a burnt out building and the families get on one another’s nerves.
Edmund tries to find work, digging graves, and such, but he is kicked out after he can produce no papers to show he is fifteen. Edmund finds himself duped by an older boy named Jo, and a young prostitute named Christl. But these are just the start of Edmund’s troubles. He soon runs in to an ex-Nazi schoolteacher, named Herr Henning (Erich Gühne), who got Edmund into the Hitler youth, over his father’s objections. In several scenes, both indoors and outdoors, it is clear that Henning is a pedophile (further playing into the then rampant belief of many that Nazis were all sexual deviants- see the homosexual portrayals in Rome Open City, as example) by the way he touches and caresses both Edmund, and later, another young boy he is seen taking into his building. He also has some shady connection with a friend of his (who may be an ex-Nazi officer) who has let him move into the building, as the two seem to be profiteering by selling off their Nazi memorabilia to Allied soldiers. In one of his meetings with Henning, after Edmund laments his father’s condition, the ex-Nazi spiels on about the role of nature, and the weak needing to die so that the strong will live, etc., not realizing that Edmund is taking him literally, and begins plotting his father’s demise, after the old man returns from a hospital stay. Thus, he visits his father in the hospital, and steals some poison, then puts it in his father’s tea. When his father does die, the neighbors all cravenly try to take whatever possessions of the dead man they can for resale or barter. Edmund, meanwhile, spirals out of control with guilt. He tells Henning of his crime, and the old pedophile denies he ever told Edmund to do such a thing, fearing the child will name him to the authorities, and compromise his lucrative business. Edmund wanders the streets, despondent, and feels mocked by the playing of a church organ. He climbs high into a burnt out building across the way from his apartment building. He watches his father’s coffin taken away, and his siblings looking for him. Karl-Heinz had finally turned himself in tot the authorities, and no repercussions were left, so things actually were looking up, as he could now get a ration card so the family could survive better. But, Edmund knows nothing of this, only that he is a murderer. He enacts several mock suicides, then tosses himself out a hole in the building, plunging to his death below, as the film ends as a horrified young woman rushes to his corpse. While the ending is foretold, this is a classic example of the how in a work of art superseding other considerations. Edmund’s end is the logical extension of all the film sets into motion, and, despite the film being mostly non-actors, including the boy, it is very well acted, especially by young Moeschke. It’s as if the iced claw of Adolf Hitler reached up from the grave to pull down his final victim.
Of the three films in Rossellini’s war trilogy, this is the simplest, the shortest, and easily the best. It’s the only film that can unequivocally be argued as great. Its best moment, aside from those shots of an aimless Edmund wandering the wasteland, comes when Henning gets Edmund, Jo, and Christl, to sell a record of one of Hitler’s speeches to Allied soldiers. As the madman’s voice preaches of a new and great Germany, the camera shows pans of only the destruction. It’s a riveting moment. The film also makes good use of its soundtrack, by Renzo Rossellini, the film director’s brother, who got better with each film in the trilogy. The cinematography, by Robert Juillard, is also the best of the trilogy, with interesting angles that prefigure many sorts of shots that would be seen in The Third Man. Also, the screenplay’s concision and spare dialogue never gets preachy, and kudos need to go to Rossellini, Max Kolpé, and Sergio Amidei.
The DVD package, put out by The Criterion Collection, is part of a three disk set called Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy. Also included are Rome Open City and Paisan. Germany Year Zero lacks any audio commentary, and that’s a shame, and another unfortunate blow to Criterion’s increasing reputation as having lost their commitment to producing the best available DVDs. Fortunately, the film is the original German language version, and was not overdubbed in a studio, the way most Italian films were. It thankfully lacks the preachy and moralistic opening monologue that Rossellini attached to most versions of the film. The disk includes this opening in the extra features, as well as Rossellini’s introduction to the film. The actual film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but there are a number of scenes that are in very poor shape, smudged and darkened. Some may be day for night shots, but others clearly are not. Other extras include a 2001 documentary called Roberto Rossellini, about the filmmaker’s life; Letters From The Front: Carlo Lizzani, which is a 1987 panel discussion of the film; an interview with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà, and the filmmaking Taviani Brothers discussing Rossellini’s influence on their work, as well as an illustrated essay by film scholar Thomas Meder, called Roberto And Roswitha, about the filmmaker’s German mistress, and possible reason for his making the film in Germany. An insert booklet has mediocre essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum in it. Overall, it’s a solid package for this film, and better than Paisan’s, but not as good as Rome Open City’s. Criterion needs to restore its reputation as a DVD maker that provides quality for its often exorbitant prices.
Germany Year Zero is a great film, and it resembles the similarly themed great French film by Robert Bresson, Mouchette, made two decades later, in which a female child has to deal with the death of a parent, poverty, sexual indiscretions, and ends up dead. But this film is anything but dead; it is the embodiment of a cliché, though, in the best sense, for although clichés are often oversimplifications, they are also often based upon truths, and Germany Year Zero is an exemplar of the maxim that less is more. Yes, perhaps developing some of the other characters may have made the film more saleable to the public (it was a bomb upon its release), but its focus on the black and white mind of an impressionable and troubled child in extremis is a rarity, and makes the film not only a companion piece to Mouchette, but also to two other magnificent films that depict the lonely lives of children, Robert Wise’s 1944 The Curse Of the Cat People and Ishirô Honda’s 1968 Godzilla’s Revenge, which also features an industrial wasteland, criminals, and a possible pedophile. That’s quite good company for this film to keep, as it bridges Neo-Realism with child-based psychodrama to produce one of the most unflinchingly brutal, yet tender, films in cinema history, as well as a rarity in film trilogies, a trilogy wherein each film is better than the preceding film. Bravo, Rossellini, bravo!