Germany Year Zero
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Synopsis: A young boy in post-WWII Germany struggles to help his family survive food shortage and illness.
The third film in Roberto Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” (connected by themes and time, not by characters or plot, cf. Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy,” Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy,” Renoir’s “Trilogy of Spectacle,” etc.), Germany Year Zero is the first to consider the side of the Germans themselves. While the earlier films, Rome Open City and Paisan, dealt with victims and fighters of Nazi oppression, this concluding chapter focuses on the devastation that German citizens deal with. The protagonist is a blond-haired boy named Edmund who was in the Hitler Youth. His brother hides out at home because he doesn’t want to go to a POW camp for “following orders.”
Moral ambiguity is an overarching theme to deal with, for characters and viewers. People do what they can to get by, smuggling, hustling, stealing, or debasing themselves, just to get some extra marks or a couple more potatoes. Any time the war is discussed, there seems to be little to no regret for the actions of Germany. Characters could reasonably have benefitted from the treatment of Jews, homosexuals, Romani, and other trod-upon peoples. This is something viewers have to reckon with, as they watch the struggles of these families, framed within decrepit buildings and surrounded by the rubble of war.
Germany Year Zero is the sobering shot one takes after watching a classic from the following year, The Third Man (currently streaming on Netflix US). There are close-enough plot similarities: Someone out of place wanders around post-war Europe, dealing with smugglers and false-faced people looking out for their own best interests. Yet, while The Third Man is filled with wit and warmth, bolstered by a possibly career-best performance by Orson Welles, Germany Year Zero has battered people, whose cruelty is laid bare. Even after Welles’s character, Harry Lime, is found to be diluting black-market penicillin, leading to the excruciating sicknesses and deaths of many children, we can still care for him. The children are never even directly shown, and Lime is still the charming Welles. Germany Year Zero hides nothing, leaving no chance of being beguiled like Edmund is at one point, by a familiar face with a charming smile.
Rossellini made a World War II film that deals with the people who don’t often get discussed, yet his film is never romanticized to present a portrait that flatters characters just for being the protagonists. The film is oozing with liminality, as Edmund is too young to work, too old to play; the citizens are somewhere between humanity and Nazism; and nearly every structure is in rubble, disrepair, or overcrowded poverty. The black and white spectrum of good and evil is full of grays, all captured on film. Rossellini asks his viewers to think for a moment, and consider this world in a moment between destructive conclusion and new beginning.
Featured Image: G.D.B. Film