Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Germany Year Zero

The final film of Roberto Rossellini's post-war trilogy continues his examination of World War II's effects on ordinary people living in the devastation of a bombed-out, battered Europe. While Rome Open City and Paisan focused on Rossellini's post-war Italy, with Germany Year Zero he heads to Berlin, divided by the victorious Allies and wracked by poverty. As with the previous two films, this one is an intense and raw drama that draws on the wreckage of the post-war streets and the rough conditions of life for those who survived the war. Rossellini shot on cheap film stock in the actual streets of Berlin, which gives his film a real documentary appeal. Everywhere, there are piles of rubble and damaged buildings, pavement cratered by bombs, and whole families living in cramped one-room quarters. They subsist on minimal rations, there's hardly any work to be found, and prices are high for even the most essential foodstuffs. A hearty black market thrives, but it's full of crooks eager to take advantage of people's desperation to sell off their most valued possessions in return for a few cans of food.

Rossellini uses these dismal, desperate conditions as a backdrop for the potent story of one boy and his family struggling to survive in the aftermath of the war. Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is just 12 years old, but he bears a lot of the responsibility for his family. His father (Ernst Pittschau) is too sick to work or even to leave his bed most of the time, while his sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) does what she can by going out every night — much to Edmund's disgust and confusion — with Allied soldiers so she can acquire cigarettes and trinkets. Worst of all, Edmund's brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) does nothing, because he served in the army during the war and is in hiding, fearing that he will be identified as a war criminal. He hasn't registered for food coupons, can't work, and simply loafs around the house all day while Edmund and Eva scrape together what few supplies they can gather for the family.

There are ambiguous intimations that Karl-Heinz could have involved in some atrocities during the war — he says he's afraid he'll be arrested when the authorities find out what unit he was in, an ominous suggestion — but he's only one sign of the more sinister undercurrents still threading through post-war Germany. The de-Nazification efforts cleanse the most overt displays of Nazi sympathies, but more subtle remnants are as ubiquitous as the rubble. By chance, Edmund encounters his old teacher Mr. Henning (Erich Gühne), who had been an organizer for the Hitler Youth during the war, and who now seems to be involved in some very shady activities. While walking around town, Henning casually trades words with an old acquaintance, who seems wistful for the days when they were "men, National Socialists," instead of just disgraced former Nazis. Moreover, Henning, whose solicitous, seductive manner towards the oblivious Edmund is skin-crawlingly pedophilic, lives with a secretive group of people, watched over by a mysterious and domineering man who has the air of an officer. Henning has vinyl records of Hitler's speeches, which he has Edmund sell to American and British GIs eager for a souvenir, but the group he shares a big house with seem to be secretively plotting something much bigger than black market sales. The whole icky vibe is of a shadow society of former Nazis still hidden within the ruins of the city, some of them slipping seamlessly back into society and some of them carrying out their vile plots at the fringes.

Though Rossellini certainly acknowledges the legacy and horrors of Nazism in sequences like this, the film's focus is not on the war criminals and evil masterminds of the Reich, but on the ordinary German citizens who lived through the war, some of them serving in the army, some of them simply staying at home while the bombs dropped all around them. In one of the film's most pointed political moments, Edmund plays a record of one of Hitler's speeches, and the words reverberate through a bombed-out building, before Rossellini cuts away to show more wrecked buildings, rows of houses missing their roofs, rubble and destruction everywhere. Hitler's stirring words about victory and glory seem so empty, so foolish, when played back atop these images of what Hitler's plans did to his people and his cities.

That's what this film, like Rossellini's other post-war street-level dramas, is really about: the human toll of war, the cost paid by the ordinary people who are simply trying to live quietly and provide for their families. It's a heartbreaking film, as Edmund's increasing desperation drives him to the edges of crime and corruption, trying to do anything he can to help his struggling family. He's just a boy, he barely understands so much of what's going on, but he hears the snide remarks from neighbors about his lazy brother and his "whore" sister, and he hears his father moaning about wanting to die, to relieve the family of the burden of caring for a sickly old man. It's chilling to see what Edmund is driven to by these circumstances, to feel his confusion and horror at the pitiless situation he finds himself in. In a typically understated shot, Rossellini holds Edmund and his father in a composition as the boy stoically, expressionlessly watches his father drink a poisoned cup of tea.

Germany Year Zero is a harrowing and heartrending film that holds a deep, tender humanism within its depiction of harsh, cruel realities. The film is raw and roughshod, the acting often shrill or stiff, and the music's bombast and melodrama is ill-suited to the ragged images that Rossellini found on these real war-torn streets. But this roughness and jaggedness is just a part of the film's greatness, adding to the impression that the director has captured the essence of day-to-day life for so many poor people just barely holding on in the aftermath of Europe's defining war.


MP said...

Germany Year Zero is the film that made me like and understand Rossellini's Cinema. His documentary-style films of human grandeur and the natural approach without any artificial effects makes this a raw but also true film that falls easily into the masterpiece category. Very good review Ed.

Sam Juliano said...

"Germany Year Zero is a harrowing and heartrending film that holds a deep, tender humanism within its depiction of harsh, cruel realities."

Yes indeed. The film mirrors the work De Sica was doing at the time, particularly BICYCLE THIEVES, where desperate copnditions leads to unthinkable tragedy. GERMANY YEAR ZERO is rather an underestimated part documentary, a work overshadowed by Rossellini's earlier and more highly praised PAISAN and OPEN CITY, but realistically reflecting the tragic aftermath of the war in Germany. As always there are plenty of cogent insights in this splendid essay, and the focus rightly frames Rossellini in a humanistic mode as opposed to a political one.

The actor who plays the young boy, Edmund Meschke is most affecting, and Robert Juillard's cinematography is uncompromising.

Ed Howard said...

Michaël, yeah, this is probably my favorite of the war trilogy, it's just so intense and raw.

Sam, this one definitely should not be underestimated; as I said, I think it might even be the best of the trilogy, certainly better than the uneven Paisan and at least on the same level as Rome Open City, which I also love. The central performance is very compelling, especially admirable since the amateur acting is often the weak point in these films, and the gritty cinematography is stunning indeed.

Drew McIntosh said...

Great piece here, Ed. This might be my favorite of the trilogy as well. In some ways it's the least neo-realistic of the films, dabbing as it does more into interiority and flagrant camera work than the others, but there are also times where it feels as potent and crushing a film document of the pain and destruction reaped from war as anything out there.

As I understand it, the lead child actor here was cast because he bore a remarkable resemblance to Rossellini's young son who had just died shortly before production began, a fact that seems to account for a lot of the intense personal energy that is felt and drives the film most of the time. It certainly makes the final stretch and eventual outcome, and how Rossellini must have felt shooting all that, all the more devastating.

On a slightly unrelated note, Ed have you seen any of Rossellini's late history films? I've been slowly going through them since the beginning of the year, and I think it's the richest period in his entire career. They are some of the most fascinating movies, both in concept and execution, that I've ever seen.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, didn't know that about Rossellini's son, Drew, that certainly makes the ending read a little differently, and makes it even more intense.

I haven't seen any late Rossellini yet, I've just been slowly exploring some of his earlier work and haven't gotten to those later films yet. They sound fascinating, though.

Jon said...

Ed, great analysis. For some reason, I prefer Paisan and Germany Year Zero to the more highly praised Open City. Both Paisan and Germany Year Zero are more heartbreaking and potent. Don't get me wrong, Open City is F*cking amazing, but I am more moved by the other two films. Germany Year Zero, makes the War and it's aftermath almost on equally tragic terms. As if the crushing blow of the War itself was just the beginning of the hardship. Just heartbreaking work here by Rossellini.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Jon. I like this thought:
"the crushing blow of the War itself was just the beginning of the hardship." That definitely seems to be what Rossellini's communicating in these films, the idea that the suffering hasn't ended just because the war is over. The repercussions of the war are felt for a long time after as well.