In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Italian director Roberto Rossellini made two heavily charged films focusing on the effort to free Italy from the grip of Fascism. Both Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisá (1946) took an interesting (if self-serving) perspective when it came to representing Fascism in Italy, almost completely ignoring the Italian Fascists while heaping unending scorn on the Nazis who occupied Italy in the closing days of the war. The Germans in these films were irredeemable monsters who seemed to derive pleasure from murder and torture; almost cartoonish villains that served as a sharp contrast to Rossellini’s more nuanced approach to Italian and Allied characters. So it is something of a surprise that the third film of the director’s famed ‘Neorealist Trilogy‘ — Germany, Year Zero (Germania, anno zero, 1948) — is about the suffering of the German people in the wake of defeat. The film follows the 12-year-old Edmund Koeler as he vainly attempts to help his impoverished family make ends meet in the ruins of Berlin. Like in the two previous films of the trilogy, Rossellini makes use of non-professional actors and location shooting in an attempt to bring gritty truth to what is essentially a melodrama. But set among the destruction and despair, the movie’s greatest strength may be that it offers a perspective on Third Reich Germany that is rarely considered by the victors of the war, that of a damaged country ravaged by bombs and ideology both. (73 min.)
S. – After two quite harrowing films from Rossellini exploring the fallout of war for citizens in its path, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Germany, Year Zero. My first impression was that the devastated landscape of Berlin was an incredible setting for this film. The high-pitched terror of existing in an active war zone may have passed, but there was no escaping the continual announcements of defeat radiating from the ruins and rubble-lined streets. The once-ornate apartment blocks that remain standing have facades splintered with cracks and exposed by fallen masonry providing a compelling backdrop for the damaged Berliners trying to figure out their own personal ways forward in a changed world. Twelve-year-old Edmund Koeler (Edmund Moeschke) and his family are our touchstone for the suffering. The remaining Koelers are made up of a bed-ridden father, a depressed and paranoid elder brother Karl-Heinz, and Eva an elder sister, all eking out a grim existence as one of five families assigned to an apartment.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the apartment inhabitants in Rome, Open City. While both collections of families are doing it tough due to the war, the Italian scenario was full of good-will and community spirit while the German situation was characterised by distrust. A key difference in this film is that the original inhabitants of the apartment had the other families forced upon them by the housing commission. The uncomfortable dynamics of this situation are epitomised by the surly Herr Rademaker (Hans Sagan) who emanates dissatisfaction at being forced to house outsiders within what remains of his walls. The circumstances generate a toxic atmosphere from which there seems little hope of improvement. By having a youth as the centre of the film the narrative avoids getting bogged down in hopelessness as Edmund seeks out ways to get by for another day. However, as a viewer it is uncomfortable to see that the options that do arise are not good.
J. – As you say, S., the setting for this film is quite remarkable and of the three films in the trilogy, Germany, Year Zero probably makes the best of use of on-location shooting (save the incredible Florence sequence in Paisá). And that’s particularly impressive considering that a much higher percentage of Germany, Year Zero was shot on sets, with that cramped apartment being location #1. Ultimately that was a very good choice, as the dynamic within the apartment was an excellent one to explore. And certainly every time the film came back to the tension within that environment it was quite compelling, with Herr Rademaker serving as an particularly effective bully/villain in the domestic sphere.
You mentioned that having a child at the center of the film kept the movie from being too morose, and I think that is true (well, only to a point ’cause it gets dire). However, I think it also might have been what kept the film from captivating me like Rome, Open City did. There were a number of adults with very interesting stories in this film — indeed, I would argue that the entire Koeler family had more interesting stuff going on than Edmund (which makes sense — he’s 12!). But the movie only teases at those threads without really exploring them in any depth. And by having Edmund be something of an innocent at the start of the film you get this strange Dickensian vibe — an Oliver Twist with Nazis. Charles Dickens is my favorite author, but there is an aspect of his narratives that works far better on the page than on film, namely the narrator/protagonist as an empty vessel. The main character in Dickens stories is often a vehicle for exploring more interesting side characters — great if you have 800 pages to flesh those characters out, not so great when you only have 70 minutes to sketch them. And that’s a pity, because many of the characters encountered across Berlin are quite interesting or downright disturbing.
S. – The adults certainly did have interesting tales to tell and I was also frustrated by the surface treatment of potentially interesting veins of story. Yet I have to admit part of me was relieved to avoid being confronted with more hard truths about the desperate circumstances by keeping things at a twelve-year-old level of comprehension. It seemed Edmund was doing ok treading a precarious path with multiple rabbit holes down which he could tumble, at times there was even a kind of optimism inherent in the image of a fair-headed boy on an adventure through the wrecked city. When the darkness did catch up with Edmund I was surprised by the direction it took. For a kid in a tough situation that still had a family he appeared to be connected to, it felt improbable that he would directly undermine that small shelf of stability. The issue of a child not being able to contextualize adult rhetoric was not out of place here, it was just the actions it lead to felt too extreme to be believed. In spite of this, the scene of Edmund’s confession to his ultra-creepy teacher was very powerful. But after this point the events directly involving Edmund felt too melodramatic and unbelievable to me.
J. – I generally agree, S., but I think my problem wasn’t so much that Edmund’s actions were unbelievable but rather that the film didn’t spend enough time setting up and exploring the kid’s descent into, well not evil, but really more of an amoral state. One thing that I found to be very effective was the film’s examination of the impact of Nazi rhetoric on the German psyche. Like other strands in the film it was not adequately explored, but the scenes that dealt with the residual stain of National Socialism were very interesting. Edmund’s awful actions were prompted in part by the creepy teacher espousing the Social Darwinist bullshit of the Nazis, but I love how quickly the teacher turns on Edmund when he realizes that the boy had put his own philosophy into action. And there is a blunt power to the scene of the defiant speech by Hitler being played over images of the devastated Berlin. But there wasn’t enough of that, and it speaks to the overall lack of focus in the film. For instance, you mentioned the movie keeping things at a 12-year-old’s level of comprehension, but that’s not precisely the case. Indeed, most of the interesting things we learn about Edmund’s family take place in scenes without Edmund (the sister trying to explain in the breadline why she can’t let herself slip fully into prostitution; the bathroom confrontation between the sister and the depressed elder brother; the Rademakers discussing death and burial). Had the film actually zeroed its focus on Edmund’s experience we would have lost these great scenes, but it might ultimately have been a stronger movie because we wouldn’t have been distracting by these other tantalizing dead ends and instead the film could have developed Edmund and his motivations in a more convincing manner.
And I thought some of Edmund’s story on the streets was quite compelling — particularly creepy teacher and the adventures in criminality with Jo and Christl. So there absolutely was material for them to develop. What did you think of those bits, S.?
S. – The scenes with Edmund and the other street kids were well handled. You can see the wheels spinning in Edmund’s head as he tries to negotiate with his peers out in the real world. Around Jo he is like a puppy, eagerly seeking attention and company even when he can see the older boy is out-smarting him, even getting a kick out of being cruel. Edmund’s awkwardness around Christl and desire to belong is endearing, especially as it is tempered with his constant concern of providing for his family. This promising thread of a story also seems to be under-developed, falling away without much of a reason. There were so many instances of promising interactions between the characters, young and old, that needed to be explored a little further to tap the emotional current of the situation. You used the word tantalizing, J., and I think that is perfect. I have thought a lot about this film since watching it, which might be considered a measure of success. Yet I never felt gripped by it while I was watching. There were multiple opportunities where I wanted to see Rossellini unpack the complexity of living in a defeated and decimated city. But they went unfulfilled and the delivery of a climactic tragedy struck me as melodramatic and out of tune with the everyday catastrophe that was evident all around.
J. – I did feel gripped during the handful of scenes with the creepy teacher Herr Henning (Erich Gühne), but very uncomfortably so. These scenes reek of pedophilia to the point that it is an actual relief when the creep only uses the boy to work as a shill and black market hawker. But the ick factor to those encounters really raises the tension to unbearable levels, which makes for compelling (if uncomfortable) viewing. And the scenes with Jo and Christl were also quite interesting, given their strange mix of Our Gang-type shenanigans with criminality and child prostitution. But the handling of these corrupting influences is ultimately so surface level, and I agree that they seem to fall away from the story without much reason. “Without much reason” is actually a good shorthand description of Germany, Year Zero, as it moves from moment to moment without quite earning the story beats and character motivations. So as you say, S., when tragedy strikes it is out of tune, and ultimately hollow. Which is a real pity, because if there is one thing that Rossellini demonstrated time and again in this trilogy it was that he was willing to take film to dark corners of the human experience where it had rarely (if ever) gone before. From a story perspective, Germany, Year Zero goes deeper into the darkness than its two predecessors, but it never finds the deep reservoirs of courage and anguish that elevate the finest moments of Rome, Open City or Paisá.