Monday, May 11, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Germany, Year Zero" (1948)

Roberto Rossellini was as responsible as anyone for creating the style known as Italian neorealism -- in which filmmakers explored the rubble of post-World War II Europe using naturalistic photography, minimalist narratives and even employing non-actors in leading roles. But "Germany, Year Zero" was attacked as abandoning the neorealistic aesthetic because he mixed in studio shots with the more vérité footage from outdoors.

I think the criticism is unwarranted -- cinematic purity, like the ideological kind, always ends up being self-defeating. Besides, it's really difficult to shoot indoors without proper lighting and angles, unless you don't mind a bunch of murky scenes with shitty composition.

At a spare 73 minutes, "Germany, Year Zero" was the final film in Rossellini's unofficial WWII trilogy -- the others being "Rome, Open City" and "Paisà," both regrettably unseen by me. While the first two were set in Italy during the latter stages of the war, "Year Zero" takes place in Berlin during the months after the German surrender.

These Germans are not racked by guilt over the Holocaust or all the casualties caused by the Third Reich, but simply are trying to survive day-to-day. Food is extremely scarce, and rampant currency inflation means a family's life savings are often not enough to furnish them all with a single meal.

I wonder if some of the resentment against the film is because it seems to depict Germans as victims, at a time when the rest of the world was not terribly sympathetic to its post-war struggles. This would be a thing even decades later -- I remember the widespread reservations about the glorious "Das Boot" because it dared to depict German submariners in a gritty but decidedly heroic light.

The story of "Germany, Year Zero" is quite simple, and revolves around 13-year-old Edmund Kohler, who tries to cobble together a living to help support his family. He works illegally without a work permit, and dabbles in black market trading, later falling in with a crowd of juvenile con artists.

His father (Ernst Pittschau) is old and bedridden, while his big brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) is a soldier hiding out from the occupying Allied forces. He served in one of the SS units and refused to surrender until the very end, and fears that he'll be executed if he registers with the Americans.

As a result, Karl-Heinz receives no ration card, so long-suffering sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinz) has to somehow feed a family of four with food only meant to barely sustain three. They're slowly starving to death with few options for respite. Father is too weak to work, and spends his days berating his eldest for not confronting his problems.

Eva goes out every night to carouse with American and British soldiers, in hopes they'll share their standard-issue cigarettes, which she palms and later trades for food. Many of her friends have resorted to outright prostitution, but so far she has resisted.

Edmund is played by Edmund Moeschk, a young circus acrobat Rossellini chose due to his resemblance to his own son, who had recently died. Edmund is depicted as the pure spirit of a child on the verge of entering manhood, who is given to great emotional impulses.

After being kicked off a cemetery detail digging graves for being too young, Edmund happens upon a former teacher, Mr. Henning (Erich Gühn), who paws at him with affection, and hunger. As straightforward a depiction of a pedophile as you're apt to see in a movie of this era, Henning lives in a shelled-out building with other former Nazis, recruiting a small army of children to act as his artful dodgers.

Things get really dark when his father, returning from a hospital stay, laments that they'd be better off without home, and Henning repeats some Aryan race agitprop about the weak needing to die in order to support the strong. Edmund takes matters into his own hands, with heart-wrenching results.

"German, Year Zero" has a stark beauty to it, with some ravishingly gorgeous black-and-white scenes contrasting with the devastation they depict. With his long, foppish blond hair and cherubic cheeks, Edmund seems like an impish angel descended in to the dirt and squalor of post-war Berlin.

The film was not well received at its time, especially by Rossellini's contemporaries in cinema. The great French critic Andre Bazin, who greatly influenced the French New Wave, called it "not a movie but a sketch, a rough draft of a work Rossellini hasn't given us."

I think there's some truth to that, in that the narrative seems rather truncated and sparse, and the tales of Edmund's older brother and sister seem worthy of more fleshing out. Still, it's a powerful artifact of its time that shows the desolation of the defeated.

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