Roberto Rossellini famously dedicated Germany Year Zero to the memory of his son Romano. After such personal forays into Italy’s own tumultuous relationship with the war years in Rome Open City and then the interwoven portraiture of Paisan, the final picture in the trilogy feels a bit like an outlier.
And yet in connecting his own recent tragedy with the hopelessness of the German experience, it does feel like he’s alighted on something that feels personal and honest. At the very least providing emotional truth if not always point-for-point docudrama.
The premise is very simple even childishly so staying with the neorealist attitude. Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is a little boy scrounging around for work, sustenance, and anything else that might be of use to his family in the rubble of the bombed-out nation. It begins feeling out the world, not settling in on one story as much as the mood and milieu of the times. Because it is a very particular moment.
There’s a sense that the film is on the ground floor of something. Since The Thousand Year Reich terminated prematurely, it becomes an unprecedented moment in history — a time to rebuild and put their world back together again — although the day-to-day struggle remains real. You get bits and pieces in The Third Man or The Search and A Foreign Affair, but Germany Year Zero feels like a different perspective on the same events.
It’s an important film for the sake of challenging our perceptions. Not exactly in the same way as Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer, and yet it’s about empathy and upending our assumptions. We see the common markers of humanity laid before us.
Edmund returns home to his family in an apartment complex running perilously over on their bills. His older brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) is fraught with turmoil over turning himself into the authorities due to his military past. His invalid father (Ernst Pittschau) is a principled man, but in such dire times, his weakness feels like a familial curse. Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) becomes the maternal figure in the house, and after caring for her father, she spends the nights accompanying foreigners for the evening…
With the spiking black market prices, the Kohler’s are just trying to eke by a living. This is not the way people were meant to live, and it’s a misnomer that the war has a finite end. The repercussions of WWII on Germany continue long after the surrender sounded.
The viewpoint of a boy is, in one sense, youthful and resilient but also impressionable and malleable, shaped by all the people and things he comes in contact with. These are the most formative days of his life thus far.
Edmund takes up the company of other street vultures as they scavenge for survival, some stolen potatoes here, some fake soap there for duping unsuspecting victims. Kohler is callow, but he soon learns this pack mentality through how his friends model certain behaviors.
His former teacher has a charming manner and a dubious reputation, while he uses his former pupils to peddle goods on the black market, espousing a philosophy of survival of the fittest. He’s either a closeted supporter of the Führer and if not him, then Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s this kind of pernicious ideology leading to ungodly Holocaust.
Edmund returns home to the scolding of his sister and with his father’s health being far worse. He’s vitamin deficient and needs a hospital though they’re overflowing as is. The elder Mr. Kohler bemoans the fact that like many in his generation, he wasn’t bolder — seeing the calamity of Hitler, and doing something to stem the tide (“We saw the disaster coming and did nothing to prevent it”).
Germany Year Zero also exhibits a cynical side and not just in the satirical way of Billy Wilder. This feels like real tragedy before us without the happy ignorance of glutted Allies come to vindicate the Germans from their sinful past. There’s no comparison between their lives. It seems indecent to even try and equate the two.
Some might note that the film is not true neorealism, with interiors shot outside of Germany, nor can you very easily call it purely “Italian” neorealism for obvious geographical reasons. Somehow this rarely pulls us out of the experience.
There’s this underlying sense that very little performance is going on in Germany Year Zero. Because these are not actors. They are merely people, and there is a confident sense that almost every strewn rock or portrait of degradation is not set dressing, but something with a natural story all its own we may never know.
We get one final glimpse of the rubble-filled streets, a train cutting through the foreground as a woman’s form kneels in front of the desolate backdrop of total annihilation. It feels like a canvas — the woman an image of the Pieta — with Rossellini crying out into the bleakness of the world. Suddenly, we realize why this movie was dedicated to his son.
It’s no wonder Germany Year Zero was hardly a popular attraction in its day; it’s not a crowd-pleaser. But with the gracious gift of time, we can look at it as a crucial counterpoint. For those back home in the U.S., these were the best years, full of prosperity and endless possibility. At ground zero, it felt very much like the pit of despair, and there were no easy fixes. They have to rebuild from the bottom up. One must beg the question, does mass catastrophe occur at the end or at the beginning of an era? Perhaps it’s both.