Film Review: Germany, Year Zero (Germania anno zero, 1948)



Many of the celebrated cinema classics aren’t the films average audience would enjoy watching. This is especially case with Italian neorealism, due to its unpleasant themes of poverty and moral devastation caused by Second World War. One such example was provided by Roberto Rossellini, founding father of Italian neorealism, in his 1948 drama Germany, Year Zero, the final and the darkest part of his “Neorealist trilogy”.

Phrase “year zero” in title is inspired by “Zero hour” (or “Stunde null” in German), concept which was becoming popular in Germany in the years following defeat in Second World War. The phrase depicts May 8th 1945 – date when German capitulation to Allies went in effect – as the point when Germans broke away with their totalitarian and militaristic past and began to build new peaceful, humanistic and democratic country that would one day be allowed to rejoin family of “normal” nations. For many Germans starting from scratch wasn’t a matter of choice – country was not only occupied and divided by Allied powers, but also utterly devastated and its people deprived not only of traditions but bare necessities of life. That situation was most visible in German capital of Berlin, where the plot of the film takes place. Once magnificent city was mostly reduced to rubble, with survivors, like 12-year old protagonist Edmund Köller (played by Edmund Moeschke), forced to share cramped apartment in half-ruined building with ailing bed-ridden father (played by Ernst Pittschau) and two adult siblings – sister Eva (played by Ingetraud Inze) and brother Karl-Heinz (played by Karl Otto Krüger). While Eva goes out at night and entertains Allied servicemen for cigarettes and trinkets that could be later bartered for food at black market, Karl-Heinz, as Wehrmacht veteran who fought to the bitter end, fears that he might end up in POW camp, so he hides and doesn’t apply for food rations. This leaves Edmund, who stopped going to school, as the main provider for the family, and he does so by engaging in petty crime and black market schemes. Along the way he stumbles on his former teacher Herr Henning (played by Erich Gühne), non-repentant Nazi who brings Edmund to some of his schemes but also teaches him that “weak should perish to make room for strong”. That makes Edmund contemplate the monstrous deed that should solve some of his family’s problems.

For Roberto Rossellini Germany, Year Zero was more personal film than first two parts of trilogy - and This film was dedicated to his son Romano who had died of appendicitis two years earlier and Edmund Moeschke, young circus acrobat without any acting experience, was cast in the main role mainly on the account of physically resembling director’s son. Rossellini, however, got the idea of making the film while visiting Berlin and noticing certain similarities and differences between Italy and Germany, concluding that the conditions of the latter would be best depicted on screen in Neorealist style. While some of the techniques – like shooting on locations and use of non-professional actors – were maintained, some of the scenes were shot in Cinecitta studios, and that included some of the German actors and crew having to travel to Italy where they found economic conditions and climate much preferable to their bleak and devastated homeland, that some refused to leave. This just shows how devastated Germany was in post-war years. Rossellini captured this not only through panoramic shots of blocks of random buildings, but also through script, co-written by Max Kolpe and Carlo Lizzani, which shows even bigger devastation within people, whose entire lives got turned upside down, every tradition and certainty of the past got swept away and whose morality got swept away by endless need to provide small quantities of food every day. Rossellini doesn’t go all the way when showing consequences of the collapse of very German concepts of law, order and discipline. While criminality is rampant, the crimes are still rather petty, and some of its darker aspects like prostitution and paedophilia are just implied. All that makes Edmund’s actions near the end more shocking and film’s conclusion even more bleak. Rossellini’s pessimism is underlined with the almost complete lack of characters audience could sympathise with. The closest among them is father, played by veteran silent era actor Ernst Pittschau, who expresses the regret at the choice his country made during his life, resulting in losing world wars and rampant inflation.

Germany, Year Zero was hailed by critics, but with significantly less enthusiasm than his previous two films. This might be explained by anti-German sentiment, which was still strong in world’s public in the first years since the war, and which made audience reluctant to accept film that would portray Germans, even innocent civilians, as victims. Some of the more snobbish critics complained about Rossellini abandoning his Neorealist principles with use of studios and professional actors. Rossellini, however, did shoot on locations and the film contains some impressive shots that give insight into Berlin that existed shortly before before Marshall Plan, Cold War agendas and German economic miracle would transform it beyond recognition. But in order to see this document, audience have to endure less than interesting plot and somewhat overlong, confusing and utterly disappointing ending, which is made worse by melodramatic musical score by Renzo Rossellini. Germany, Year Zero, however, still deserves recommendation as solid piece of cinema, interesting historic document and warning what could happen to countries and civilisations that took their power, prosperity and enlightenment for granted.

RATING: 6/10 (++)


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