After having bought Italian filmmaking to the attention of the rest of the world with the excellent Rome, Open City and following that up with the even more brilliant Paisan, Roberto Rossellini went to Germany to film the final part of his war trilogy, entitled Germany Year Zero. Unfortunately, with the concluding part of his war trilogy he failed to built on the fantastic work he had managed to create already, instead creating a film that, despite its extremely dark and depressing subject matter, never manages to drag itself out of a dirge-like pit of emotional dullness.
Make no mistake, this is an easy contender for one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen. It deals with many of the same subjects that other neorealists had concerned themselves with – poverty, hunger, the lives of those on the margins of society, whilst also finding a way to include patricide and paedophilia into the mix – but amidst its near-documentary desire to produce reality as it is, it fails to produce a dramatically engaging reality. This is a film which knows only one note to play; it is resoundingly, continually miserable, and the primary problem is that it never does anything with this misery. It just there onscreen for us to look at.
Amidst this, there are aspects which I very much enjoyed. Rossellini was a man who knew how to use landscapes to great effect, something he did in Rome, Open City and Paisan. Here, he gets as much as he can out of the ruined landscape of Berlin; after all, as damaged as some Italian cities were, they could barely compare to the ruined landscape of Berlin. Barely a shot in this film does not contain a background of an empty, rubble-strewn, barren city, one that is truly hollowed out. And in a sense, this is replicated in our main character – a young boy by the name of Edmund (Edmund Moeschke), once a committed Hitler Youth member and now wandering the streets trying to figure out a way to get food for his family, which consists of a stressed sister, an ailing father and an in-hiding former-SS brother. We follow him through the film as he becomes increasingly isolated and terrified about the future. His childhood has been yanked from him by the sins of the older generation, leaving him with little to be cheerful about. In this destitute, hungry Berlin, he struggles to formulate empathy and relationships with others.
We see a variety of episodes in his life, including one particularly sinister one in which the young Edmund meets an old teacher of his who takes him back to his home. The teacher is far too friendly and close to Edmund for us to think of it as anything other than, well…y’know. The recurring theme throughout these episodes is not just the hunger and desperation of Edmund as he tries to make whatever money he can for his family, but also the idea of a Germany that is still reeling from the psychological shock of having lost the war, a Germany that has not even begun to comprehend or deal with its past. These themes are only implied, never spoken out loud, and this is easily where I found the film most interesting. Rossellini, an Italian, seemed more willing to talk honestly about the crimes committed during the war than German filmmakers often did. Importantly, Rossellini delineates between National Socialist Germans and simply Germans – the poverty of the postwar period effects both sections grossly, but it is many of the former Nazis who seem to be struggling with it more so on a psychological level.
Of Rossellini’s war trilogy, Germany Year Zero is by far and away the most ‘neorealistic’ of the three. It ticks almost all the boxes for the movement: amateur actors, heavy use of location shooting, an awareness of poverty and life at the margins of society, simple, purposely non-dramatic plots. Yet, this is no Bicycle Thieves. Germany Year Zero is an interesting film, especially from a historical perspective, but I honestly cannot call it a particularly good one, whereas Bicycle Thieves is of course a masterpiece. The latter has charisma and grace. The performances, though amateur, are brilliant. Who can fail to feel sympathy for that film’s young star Enzo Riola and his cherubic onscreen presence? It is a performance of real honesty and truth. Here, Edmund Moeschke is wholly cold to those around him. The film makes a point that it is very much the environment that has shaped him rather than him being born ‘evil’, so to speak, yet he is still a wholly unlikeable character. He clearly has, throughout the film, some vague sense of what is right or wrong, but he seems far too impressionable to ever be able to act it out. With the film’s unerring sense of misery, it produces a film that is rather difficult to like. The final ten or so minutes with an utterly despondent Edmund wandering through the rubble of Berlin are incredibly poetic and sorrowful, easily the highlight of the film. However, as I understand, Rossellini initially had pretty much the whole imagery of the final ten minutes in his head from the start, and shot the rest of the film around that. Perhaps that shows why Germany Year Zero was not a very good film – the structure and thematic succinctness of Rome, Open City and Paisan are simply not there from the beginning of Germany Year Zero, leading to a film that sags and drags.