Germania anno zero

(Germany Year Zero, Italy - 1947)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Edmund Moeschke, Ingetraud Hinze, Franz-Otto Kruger, Ernst Pittschau, Erich Guhne
Genre: Neorealism
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Roberto Rossellini, Carlo Lizzani, Max Kolpe
Cinematography: Robert Juillard
Composer: Renzo Rossellini
Runtime: 78 minutes

"Did you hear, papa? Maybe you'll go to the hospital!...Imagine you'll eat what you want. You'll get three meals a day. Yes, something warm" - Eva

Germany Year Zero is the final installment of Rossellini's trilogy of war. In a rare accomplishment, I find each film to be an improvement over the previous, but this one didn't please audiences and critics like the first two and has since fallen into the obscurity like most of Rossellini's ill-kept archives.

There are many reasons this film didn't please people, starting with the fact that just two years after World War II Rossellini forgives the Germans. For this, I admire him not only for his courage but also for his wisdom. I'm fed up with the supposed sexiness and seductiveness of revenge that's peddled constantly and ingrained in everyone's mind. These things lead on, on and on and on until someone decides not to seek vengeance. The "War To End All Wars" is perhaps the best example one can give against revenge because it was more like The War to Start the Next War due to the victors unwillingness to forgive the Germans. The situation we left them in bred the bitterness and contempt that allowed Adolf Hitler to gain support by feeding not only on that anger but the fact that the Germans weren't an inferior life form (of course neither were the people Hitler in turn persecuted). While Open City & Paisan featured the spirit and "heroism" of the Italians, this is set in the rubble of Germany and only features unknown "enemies." In actuality though, the film does for the Germans what Open City did for the Italians, makes you see them as human beings. It's a more detached film, darker and less hopeful, but these things don't make it good or bad.

I'll never understand the "logic" of uplifting being a positive comment and depressing being a negative comment. That says exactly nothing about the quality or success of the film, only that this person is unwilling to take anything more from it than the final mood. The idea that the meaning and importance of a work is limited to a final feeling is laughable. If you take the life of any great deceased figure, does it somehow have less merit and worth because they eventually died? Of course not, but tell someone that the main character dies in the end and you've automatically cut your audience in half not because you've ruined the story but because they don't want to be sad. Whether it's happiness, tragedy, whatever, a characteristic doesn't make a good film, and if you can only think of one reason that it was a good film then it probably wasn't one. If it's interesting and involving, shows observation, logic, and honesty, gives you situations to wrestle with and makes you live through the characters but also want to question some of their decisions then I say run with it no matter what emotion it's supposedly producing. In introducing the film on TCM, the great Martin Scorsese rightfully said, "I see this film as a prayer from Rossellini to the post war world, a prayer for compassion."

Another thing that annoys me is the idea that all films are out to make us feel a certain way. When you make a film I should hope you have an inspiration, but fools allow most films not to because they regularly pay for these generics that coddle them like babies and please them with the same useless happy formulas of "hero" succeeding in love or war. It's all about preserving the status quo and taking people's money while they wish they had more. Now, the main point of making this film is rather obvious, in fact it doesn't get much more obvious than writing it at the beginning, and I certainly have a big problem with it's pretentious assertion that Christian morality and piety is "the very foundation of human life". However, I attest that if this film moved you, you were moved by the material rather than the filmmaking. The film doesn't harp nor do your work for you, it unfolds in a free yet relentless manner. At first it offers different situations and perspectives that are not necessarily "right", but definitely sensible given the characters situation and background. Like Paisan it closes with a largely wordless section, although this time it's charting every movement of the climaxes results rather than presenting a separate story. It's certainly a story, but even though the focus is on one boy the characters are well drawn and their plight is very real, real enough that there is no need (and really no attempt with only the wordless sections being scored in a non-manipulative manner where Renzo Rosselli shows big improvement by doing so) to manipulate. And that's basically what neorealism is all about, taking actual situations and working them into something cohesive that depicts the essence of the people it's focusing on. The people in these films have it tough, but that's because, while there are obviously very different degrees, real life is a struggle for most people (especially in the period of neorealism where governments had just finished beating each other's brains out). It's mainly in Hollywood films where 20-something characters are funded by invisible forces and are "cool" because they have everything we are supposed to want.

Germany Year Zero is about a frail, common 12-year-old boy named Edmund Koeler (Edmund Moeschke) that stalks rigidly through the ruins of Berlin with his head down and his half shut eyes looking at the ground in sadness, shame, and despair. Edmund, of course, in many senses represents Germany as a whole. As the nation tries to start over with very little money and resources his life becomes one of confusion, hardship, destitution, and ultimately rejection. One could argue over how much guilt and remorse the survivors felt, but certainly they'd have to deal with the actions of their country - which will never be forgotten - for the rest of their lives.

Edmund is not the most common case because he's trying not only survive but to support his family. The film to his dedicated to Rossellini's son Romano, who died at that age the year before while his father was finishing Paisan. Rossellini was incredibly smart in making his protagonist this age though. He's not only too young to be responsible for any of the wretched Nazi policies, he's a little too young to have a chance of carrying his family like a man.

The first scene shows Edmund working in a graveyard. You are sorry and disgusted to see the others betray him by telling the boss that he's not old enough (15), resulting in him getting nothing for the work he did. Part of you wants to be glad because he's really too puny to be doing this kind of work on a consistent basis, but then you think back to what you saw just before Edmund. This isn't a job that's being done by a bunch of rugged powerful men; it's all people you wouldn't expect, mainly old women. One of them says, "What's the use? We'll die no matter what." Another is told, "If you're tired throw yourself in that grave," when she's looking for a break because she's been slaving away all day. Obviously the situation is beyond desperate, and while the ideal job for him might be out there the chances of getting any job much less that one are extremely slim.

Edmund has a father (Ernst Pittschau) and a brother, Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Kruger), that are well within the age of supporting the family. However, his father is bedridden and his brother doesn't have the courage to present himself to the authorities. Karl-Heinz was a soldier in a regiment that fought all the way home, and he fears when he registers for his food card and work eligibility they'll instead cart him off to a concentration camp. The problem is that not registering can only end in disaster for the whole family, which he realizes even saying, "Now I'm less than worthless - an extra mouth to feed."

Edmund's sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) is left to do almost everything, but she also can't find work. After taking care of the house and the two burdens all day, she spends her night at a club escorting Americans in hopes they'll give her a cigarette that she can trade at the black market. Her friend that finds her clients at the club keeps prodding her to whore herself too, prompting Eva's best dialogue while they stand in the food line figuring it will run out before they get their share. "So I waste my evenings for cigarettes, would I get more if I gave in? What are you getting out of it? You're just as hungry and miserable as I am, like the others are. Don't you see?"

I mentioned a house, but it's not the Koeler's. The Housing Superintendent placed them in the Rademaker's place, which now has five families. It's not so much that it's overcrowded, but that the laws limit based on the house rather than the number of families or occupants, so the electricity is soon cut off after Rademaker's harebrain scheme to steal the extra they need backfires. It's easy to say Rademaker is a real bastard because he's always accusing the Koeler's of everything and blaming them for all his problems, but he once had a good situation. The presence of all the other families just takes away from what's available to him, and there are a lot of people in that house. The characters aren't really selfish, they are just so desperate and miserable from the horrible conditions that they wind up at each other's throats even when their intentions are good (although Rademaker's rarely are).

The story though is all about Edmund and his quest to save his family. His character certainly attempts to be "heroic", but the situation is so different it calls for almost a complete reversal of the typical neorealist portrayal of children. The child is still the brunt of adult insanity. However, one attempt after another to be helpful goes totally awry because he's simply not old, wise, strong, or experienced enough for the task the conditions force on him until he's another casualty of the surrounding madness.

Edmund's odyssey begins when he gets Rademaker to agree to allow him to sell his scale on the black market. Edmund is still innocent at this point, so he's in way over his head. An adult predator immediately smells easy prey and takes the scale out of his hand, handing him two cans of meat and driving off while Edmund balks that it's not a fair trade and asks for the scale back.

Edmund runs into his old school teacher Mr. Enning (Erich Guhne). He lost his credentials when the Nazis lost power, but is still clinging to the regime's ideas as he struggles to get by through unspecified shady activities. The Enning character is necessary because the film wouldn't be believable if everyone was an "innocent" that had nothing to do with Hitler. Rossellini rightfully doesn't expect the bad people to suddenly turn good, but the film is about giving the youth the chance to live, love life, and decide for themselves. That said, Rossellini makes a cheap unnecessary point by having Enning and his friend be pedophiles. It's never stated or explicitly acted upon, but the way Enning touches Edmund makes it obvious to everyone but Edmond who doesn't know about that kind of affection yet and probably just assumes it's the kind he does know.

Enning is the only one that will give Edmund work, but it's selling a record of a Hitler speech on the black market. He sends them off with an older streetwise kid named Jo and his tagalong Kristen. Through a haunting scene where the Fuhrer speech blasts in the ruins of one of his old stomping grounds as the camera shows where those ideas left Germany and an equally memorable one where Jo easily gives a lady a nice deduction on soap because he's just going to keep it and run off with whatever amount she pulls out of her pocketbook, Edmund kind of learns what it takes to get by in year zero. He needs something to sell to pull the Jo scam off though. Foolishly thinking spending a day with Jo makes them pals, he gives Jo his 10 mark commission from Enning for what turns out to be the useless ripped open soap packaging and only gets a small share of the potatoes they ripped off because that's "all Jo can fit in his bag."

As Edmund is trying to grow up and learn this new way of life, he wisely looks for guidance from the older people he knows. The problem is these people are totally disillusioned with what passes for life and he's not capable of knowing what to listen to. He can't tell when to take things at face value and when to realize people are just letting out their misery and self pity, so he's constantly lead down the wrong path. With all the suffering, much of the talk centers on death. Karl-Heinz says, "I'd be better off jumping out the window," while Edmund's father says, "I'm of no use anymore. It would be better if I die. I've even considered killing myself, but I don't lack the courage."

Things are easier on the Koeler's when the father's condition deteriorates to the point he needs hospitalization, but starvation is something that eats you away slowly. He recovers enough to return home, but even without having him to feed the rest of his family has grown weaker trying to survive without any income. Enning's Nazi and Social Darwinist beliefs produce a speech that changes Edmund's life forever. "Enough of this sentimentality. Life is what it is. We've been shaped by different conditions. You're afraid of your father dying. Learn from the natural world. The strong eliminate the weak. You need the courage to sacrifice the weak. It's a natural law, for humans as well."

The scenes have less and less light as the film goes on. The light, used as a representation of childhood innocence and purity, is slowly disappearing from Edmund's life to the point it almost looks like Rossellini is only using natural lighting in the middle of the night.

When Edmund kills his father by secretly poisoning him, that's not at all a low point for him. It obviously doesn't make him happy, but like a good little sheep he feels he's completed his task, done what was courageous and necessary to improve his situation. The film gets bright again when he goes to Enning's to inform him of his successful mission. Edmund is sent reeling though when Enning reacts in terror, "I didn't tell you anything. You're crazy…a monster!" and slaps Edmund. This is Edmund's awakening. He realizes that he's been living in tragedy as if that was the only way to live. He seeks to purge himself from his guilt and return to having an actual life, not realizing it's no longer an option in this broken society.

The final portion has Edmund leave his family claiming he's an adult when they have to move in with the neighbors until his father's body is taken away. Everything he does from that point though is an attempt to regain his childhood. He wanders though the remnants of his country trying to amuse himself as an escape, but the hopelessness is all encompassing and releasing nervous energy isn't satisfying. These scenes create an incredible level of helplessness in the viewer because you have no choice but to keep your and watch the world spit him out.

Rossellini follows Edmund at a distance in documentary style, letting faces that are old, hollow, and weary when they shouldn't even have hit their prime, as well as the rubble of the country do much of his talking. At the same time, the audio of his actions is so distinct that it calls attention to his solitude. Another reason the conclusion is so memorable is that the time lapses are diminished until it's almost real time, which really brings out Edmund's isolation.

The most memorable scene has him trying to play ball with a bunch of younger children that are still really kids (they have an adult to feed their "worthless mouths"). They tell him to leave them alone and quickly walk off with the ball and set up elsewhere when he won't listen. It's as if he's become another species, the situation has left him with no one and nothing in this world.



* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *