Aside from Vittorio De Sica there is no name that dominates the national film movement of Italian Neorealism more than Roberto Rossellini. A few years before the heavenly Ingrid Bergman would send Rossellini her now iconic letter, the Italian master was hard at work filming a series of searing war-time tales: Rome Open City, Paisan, and finally the subject of this review, Germany Year Zero.
Brilliantly capturing the jaw-dropping, ravaged landscape of immediate post-WWII Berlin, Germany Year Zero is perhaps the bleakest of the trilogy. The film offers a grim portrait of the German populace reduced to survival-mode. With the city’s infrastructure destroyed, and with Berlin’s citizens scrambling for a very finite number of ration cards, Rossellini’s film is aptly named. The populace has experienced what appears to be a full revolution, back to an almost hunter-gather state of being.
The nexus of the human drama in this zeitgeist film is Edmund Kohler, a young boy who has been forced by circumstance to adopt the role of bread-winner (all the while wearing an alarmingly short pair of shorts). His family is facing a dire situation with his elderly father being infirm and with his brother refusing to register for a ration card due to his involvement with the Third Reich army. One day, while out hustling, Edmund runs across an old teacher named Herr Henning who offers to help Edmund while simultaneously displaying a hair-raising affection for him (which strongly smells of pederasty). This interaction, paired with a worsening situation at home, leads to the dramatic reshaping of the boy’s worldview and ultimately tragic consequences.
Like other entries in the neorealism canon, Germany Year Zero is cast with non-actors and is aesthetically defined by a minimal amount of fuss or movie-making razzle-dazzle. For the most part Rossellini just plunks his camera down with the actors or utilizes slow-moving pans to communicate the harshness of his story’s environment. The effect of these two attributes is quite powerful, negating much of the melodrama and sheen which often seems intrinsic to the medium. In several scenes the film almost has the look of news reel footage, with the battered, broken facades of Berlin being far more powerful looking than the spectacular albeit staged devastation seen in a film like Polanski’s The Pianist.
The film’s realism also affects the dialogue (which was allegedly improvised to a certain degree), which is a great example of cinematic suggestion. The diverse array of characters that Edmund interacts with during the story paint a striking portrait of Berlin’s highly fragmented, often unsavory post-war ethos. Many of these figures leave a strong impression, despite the naturalism and clearly sparse script. One can see this powerfully in the character of Herr Henning, whose body language towards Edmund speaks volumes about the moral ambiguity running rampant throughout the city. Less convincing is the home life of Edmund. Rossellini is able to effectively flesh out the family’s desperate situation during these scenes. Yet the quality of the acting becomes occasionally dubious, even contradictory to the film’s unpolished, docudrama aesthetic. One can see this in the character of Edmund loutish older brother Karl-Heinz. His behavior regarding the family’s fiscal hardships and his self-loathing for not assisting in putting food on the table is highly theatrical, even silly.
More than anything the film’s power is derived through moments where its thematic lens encompasses a larger scope, where Berlin and not an individual family is profiled. In one scene two soldiers play a record of one of Hitler’s speeches, where the old Fuhrer vociferously bellows about how Germany will have a bright future under his leadership. While this is playing Rossellini cuts to shocking, stark images of urban destruction. He depicts massive structures blackened and compressed as if touched by the hand of an angry god. With this brief scene Rossellini goes further than nearly all of his successors in showcasing the unbelievable cost of war. This scene and the film itself shows how precarious and problematic a heavily industrialized society can be. It’s the type of society that has the power to master the elements, support large populations, but simultaneously the power to tear it all up.