Germany Year Zero (1948, Roberto Rossellini)

The end of the War Trilogy, and the one I’d seen once before in a mega-depressing Italian Neorealism night programmed by TCM, which included Ossessione and Umberto D.

No Fellini involvement this time, just R.R. in a foreign land with unknown actors. Being an Italian, foreign pictures were no problem – doesn’t matter what anybody is saying because they’ll be dubbed later. A fairly active and mobile camera for 1948, with plenty of exteriors of course, by D.P. Robert Juillard, who’d later shoot René Clément’s Forbidden Games. Big noisy music by brother Renzo.

Little Edmund is being pulled in all directions. He lives with his family, who board with a cranky other family. The elders complain that Edmund is made to go out and work for them, but they barely lift a finger to help – father is ill, brother is a nazi soldier in hiding, and sister dances with men at night for cigarettes. Edmund even picks up tasks for the landlords, who then bitch and moan if he doesn’t do them right. He’s not extremely street smart (Hitler Youth underprepared him for ruinous defeat), is taken advantage of wherever he goes. He falls in with a nazi (and very likely pedophile, extremely creepy, touchy dude who loves hanging out with boys) ex-schoolteacher who plants the idea in Edmund’s mind to poison his father and lessen the burden around the house. But doing this only makes Ed feel worse, and he throws himself off a building.


“This movie, filmed in Berlin in the summer of 1947,” [Rossellini] declared …, is “an objective and faithful portrait,” not “an accusation or even a defense of the German people.” Yet objectivity was clearly (and thankfully) the last thing Rossellini had in mind. Even the doom-ridden modernist score by his brother Renzo participates in the sense of unfolding disbelief and horror by suggesting some of the mood of science fiction. And the directive later in the preface to care about these Germans rather than call for any further retribution is actually more consistent with Rossellini’s aims than any “objective assessment” could be. This was a brave and principled stance for him to take at the time, and it still places Germany Year Zero well in advance of most films about war made even today.

That ending (Rossellini says the ending was the only part of this film that interested him) is so powerful that although it’s one of the all-time most depressing movie finales, I could watch it over and over. Ed allows himself to be more of a kid here, playing games that get increasingly war-like and suicidal – he pretends that a bit of metal is a gun, and his first instinct is to shoot himself with it. The final pan up to the ruined city skyline (one of many majestic shots of bombed-out Berlin) reminds me of that final skyline shot as the kids walk away from the murdered priest at the end of Rome Open City.