Roberto Rossellini is the filmmaker most important to the Italian Neorealist movement. His Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisà (1946), two beautiful works, are justly celebrated. However, the movement’s singular masterpiece is his next film, Germany, Year Zero (Germania, Anno Zero)—although it’s a measure of the breadth of Rossellini’s body of work that one of his films in another direction, Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950), surpasses it, and The Age of Cosimo di Medici (1973) and Blaise Pascal (1972), in still another direction, match its level of attainment.
Receiving French and East German financing, and filmed in German in Berlin with a nonprofessional cast, Germany, Year Zero was written by Rossellini and Max Colpet, with Sergio Amidei contributing to the dubbing script of the Italian version. (It’s the latter that’s currently available on DVD in the States, although the German-language version is available on VHS.) The film took the top prize at Locarno in 1948. Its cool box office reception, though, helped move Rossellini into the arms of Ingrid Bergman, with whom he collaborated on a series of brilliant films that—with the exception of Joan at the Stake (1954), perhaps—blended neorealist and more personal elements.
To begin with, Italian Neorealism has literary roots in Zola’s naturalism in France and, in cinema, can be traced to Visconti’s apprenticeship to Jean Renoir, on whose Toni (1934) Visconti worked as a production assistant. Renoir thus described (in 1956) his approach in making this splendid film: “The cinema is based above everything on photography, and the art of photography is the least subjective of all the arts. Good photography . . . sees the world as it is, is selective, determines what merits being seen and seizes it by surprise, without change . . . . My ambition was to integrate the non-natural elements of my film, those elements not dependent on chance encounter, into a style as close as possible to everyday life. . . There is no studio used in Toni. The landscapes, the houses are those we found. . . . The script was from a true story . . . No stone was left unturned to make our work as close as possible to a documentary. Our ambition was that the public would be able to imagine that an invisible camera had filmed the phases of a conflict without the characters unconsciously swept along by their being aware of the camera’s presence.”
While one must adjust these aims in the case of Rossellini to include a most highly visible camera that in fact becomes, perhaps, the principal “player” in Germany, Year Zero, one detects in Renoir’s description the foundation of neorealismo, which came into being, enjoined to the fatalism of French poetic realism, with Ossessione, Visconti’s sweeping version of James M. Cain’s American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Rossellini, along with De Sica, however, moved their neorealism away from literary claims and into rougher visual territory. Their on-location shooting eschewed the somewhat studied compositions and gorgeous aesthetics of Visconti’s aristocratic method, connecting instead with the pulsating random energy of Dziga Vertov’s documentary forays into Moscow streets in the 1920s. (In truth, De Sica’s approach fell somewhere between Visconti’s and Rossellini’s.) Background and foreground, the latter occupied by nonprofessionals (Renoir, in Toni, blended professional actors and nonprofessionals, a procedure that Claude Chabrol would fall heir to), became in a sense interchangeable, the result an encapsulation of everyday life. In the case of Rossellini’s film, this aspect befitted the juncture of a clinically observed case study, that of Edmund, a 12-year-old boy coping with the aftermath of the Second World War in a blasted and blighted Berlin, and the generalization of discombobulated life that the difficulties of his situation exemplify. Germany, Year Zero pursues the general, then, through the particular. Its immediate aim is immediacy—the immediacy of the boy’s experience amidst the immediacy of his environment, each lending compelling credibility to the other and in a sense becoming the other, their interchangeability stressing, in addition to the causal connection in environment’s shaping of the boy’s actions, a sense of random character selection wherein some other selection—for instance, one of the other afflicted children with whom Edmund interacts—might have produced a thematically similar or identical result. The unpolished visual style, partly owing to the use of hand-held camera, is of a piece with this aim of immediacy; indeed, this style, with its implicit banishment of studio tinkering and artifice, comes to encapsulate this immediacy. Nothing must derail this immediacy; hence, neorealism’s use of post-synchronized sound so that the filming could focus on the visual recording of action and milieu without the claim on attention that simultaneous sound recording would impose. So much in Germany, Year Zero collapses figure and ground, theme and method.
To be sure, Rossellini imparts a heightened dramatic sense to Edmund’s misadventures (something the music in particular stresses), but this, too, serves a thematic purpose, for Rossellini hopes to erase the possible complacent reaction that the commonplace of suffering contained in Edmund’s example should reduce its claim on our social consciousness. (The music is by Renzo Rossellini, the filmmaker’s brother. For decades I deemed its emphatic contribution a mistake deriving from nepotism. Now I find the music apt and essential.) The opposite is Rossellini’s aim: that the common nature of such suffering should alert our attention to each and every example and to the task of remedying the conditions that generate so many like instances.
Rossellini’s approach is too clinical, too objective, to admit sentimental notes of wallowing in some sort of guilt for the social distress generated by the collapse of Fascism. Critic Penelope Houston finds in Italian neorealism “[t]he driving urge to rehabilitate the national reputation.” I (happily) find nothing of the sort in Germany, Year Zero. Such an “urge” here would compromise the film’s immediacy; backward-in-time recriminations would prove a distraction. On the other hand, Rossellini’s own need to address his participation in his nation’s recent derelict politics—his need, that is, to do this on his own time, not ours through the film—is another matter entirely. Rossellini, after all, did not share the Marxism of Visconti, De Sica and many other of his fellow neorealists.
About a child, Germany, Year Zero is dedicated to a child. The film begins: “In memory to my son Romano.” This personal note becomes a part of the film, lending startling emotional depth to the film’s clinical approach. In addition, the film’s lack of manipulative sentimentality itself helps account for the pure consideration we as viewers extend to Edmund in light of his hopeless and tragic situation. Like all suicides, but especially those of children, his at the end of the film cannot admit our perfect comprehension, but at the same time it has none of the arbitrary quality of suicides in Hollywood soap operas. It makes perfect sense, even if the sense is too enormously painful to take in and clarify as to causality. Everything we have seen throughout the film, both in Edmund’s own life and in the life everywhere around him, which I have said become in a sense one and the same thing, leads to his ultimate act, but the act itself retains an enormity with which cause-and-effect cannot cope. I know of no other film in which the death of a young child is so stunningly painful. Only one other film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), leaves me with such inconsolable grief over the loss of a fictitious life. Surely it is part of the greatness of both these films that they find some way that other films don’t to convey to the full the illimitable value of human life.
In a sense, Edmund is crushed by the burden of his milieu, the social panorama that war has wrought. In effect, he is a casualty of the war—a reminder that wars exact casualties even once they have officially ended. Thus the film, after proclaiming its aim to be “an objective assessment” so that the viewer, used to sentimental filmmaking, won’t be thrown by its clinical approach, makes generalizations about Berlin and its children: the city is “almost totally destroyed”; there, “3.5 million people live desperate lives”; “German children need to relearn to love life.” There is no point whatsoever for a film like Germany, Year Zero to be less than perfectly plain about its sense of reality; since the film’s aim is to foster the kind of social consciousness that will search out remedies for appalling social conditions, the opening commentary is entirely justified. It orients viewers—a particular help here, since the actions that will unfold include events one is unlikely to anticipate: a boy killing his father with poison before dropping to his own death from a gutted neighborhood building. It becomes the film’s immediate task following this introduction to locate Edmund in the milieu that will in effect crush him, urging his very young life to suicide. This is effected by a brilliant panning shot of the city that finds Edmund working at digging graves. We will learn that he is pretty much (besides government food rations) his family’s sole financial support—a burden no set of 12-year-old shoulders can hope to bear. But the situation is worse than that, for he won’t even be allowed to succeed in his attempt to bear such a burden. In this opening scene of hard labor—and labor, note, identifying Edmund with death at the outset, hence, indirectly, with his own death at film’s end—he is fired from the job for being, officially, too young for it. Edmund is between a rock and a hard place.
The grave digging introduces two themes. One, because this school-age boy isn’t going to school due to his family’s need for support, is war’s disruption and theft of simple childhood. Indoctrinated by the Nazi regime during the war, Edmund has yet to be returned to any kind of normalcy afterwards. The other theme is war’s relegation of human life to the discardable and disposable. The course of Edmund’s own life and death will bring this theme to fruition, but in the meantime its principal agency is Edmund’s elderly, ailing father. “I’d be better off dead,” he tells Edmund, his youngest child. “I have to watch all of you suffer without being able to help.” The family’s situation is stressed because Edmund’s older brother, a soldier fearful of retaliation from Occupiers, has declined to apply for work or a food ration card for himself. Edmund also has an older sister. His mother is deceased. His family shares quarters with other families. One member of one of the other families helps Edmund when possible by donating a household item so that Edmund can sell it (for himself and his family) on the black market. But Edmund’s father, who during the war hated Hitler, now is equally opposed to black marketeering, either having been or being, it is implied, an affront to his dignity and sense of lawfulness. He must rely on his small son to stay alive, but at one point he slaps Edmund across the face because of the child’s shady associations and activities—because in their service he has stayed out all night. Again this is like Edmund’s losing his grave digging job. It has been left to him to keep family intact body and spirit, but other paternal forces, whether nation or father, oppose this attempt. They have their standards; they have their guilt. But what is Edmund to do?
Edmund is in the process of being all used up. In a scene out of Dickens, he is used by other thieving children, who even confiscate the precious money he had made by selling an item that his neighbor has donated for that purpose. Nor is he safe from adults. A former teacher, whose sexual interest in him Edmund mistakes for pure affection, also uses Edmund. This teacher, a Nazi still, is involved in clandestine political activity in which he involves Edmund, who is unaware of the use he is being put to. Edmund looks up to this man as a father; the teacher is indeed a father’s age—in years, Edmund’s own father could be Edmund’s grandfather—and he is someone to whom Edmund feels he can confide, someone who seems to listen to him. One day, Edmund tells his former teacher about his father’s hopeless remarks, his father’s courtship of the idea of suicide. Distracted from his own political activities, the teacher thoughtlessly says things that Edmund interprets as meaning that killing his father, for his father’s sake and the sake of the family, would be the right thing to do. People are discardable and disposable, after all. Edmund steals poison from the hospital where his father stays for a spell. At home, once his father returns, he poisons his father, who dies. But when he tells his former teacher what he has done, expecting the approval, the gold star, he so desperately needs, the man, fearing political exposure and legal consequences for himself, turns on the boy. In killing his father, the boy has done a horrible thing. How could he do that? How can he now say that the teacher directed this act? The boy is left shattered. He has lost all three of his fathers: his nation; his actual father; his former teacher.
A child is lost before our eyes. We can do nothing to bring him back because we can do nothing to bring his father back. Some acts are irreversible, and a child especially is trapped in their emotional consequences. If you started from a point of barely coping with a burden that no child is emotionally equipped to bear, where do you end? What is Edmund to do? At the close of the film, the day of his father’s funeral, we see Edmund for the first time at play. Searing irony. He is by himself on the pavement and then up in a bombed-out building, playing. Down below, his family, unaware of where he is, call out for him to join them. His eyes go blank, a train passes, taking all hope with it, and he takes his fall. A shot to the pavement confronts us with the result. Some acts are irreversible, and even if you are safely watching a film you are trapped in their emotional consequences.
Edmund: is he the lead character? Certainly the most dynamic “character” is Rossellini’s camera—a darting, sweeping, probing, burrowing camera representing Rossellini’s need to know about the consequences of war in a fallen foreign country. War is responsible—and Hitler. Hitler. In perhaps the film’s most celebrated shot, the voice of Adolf Hitler, giving a rousing speech, plays off the phonograph record that Edmund has unwittingly transported at his former teacher’s behest. (By symbolic association, Edmund is one of Hitler’s children.) We hear that bodiless, empty, still shadowing voice, while what we see—what the camera shows—consists of the ruins of the Chancellery. What we see matches what we hear, and what we hear matches what we see.
But the conclusion of the film: How does something so tragic as Edmund’s death become so satisfying, so beautiful to behold, and how does the beauty advance rather than detract from the tragedy? This is part of the majestic mystery of art that George Santayana attempted to explain near the turn of the century: “Art must not create only things that are abstractly beautiful, but it must conciliate all the competitors these may have to the attention of the world, and it must know how to insinuate their charms among the objects of our passion. But this subserviency and enforced humility of beauty is not without its virtue and reward. If the æsthetic habit lie under the necessity of respecting and observing our passions, it possesses the privilege of soothing our griefs. There is no situation so terrible that it may not be relieved by the momentary pause of the mind to contemplate it æsthetically.” With Rossellini’s neorealism, the beauty of his camera’s eye consoles our grief even as the content, both releasing and containing our inconsolable grief, urges us to take social action. We are participants in that shot of Edmund face-down, crushed, on the pavement because it completes and invigorates our passion: our love for children; our love of life.
Edmund Meschke plays Edmund. Germany, Year Zero could have been Meschke’s story. Acting it out perhaps spared him its becoming his story. This boy gives an indelible performance. It would remain cinema’s most brilliant portrait of a boy for a dozen years, until Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
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