‘Germany Year Zero’ is the final film in Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist ‘War Trilogy’. It follows ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945) and ‘Paisà’ (1946), although they are narratively unconnected and can be viewed separately. This film follows the story of Edmund, a twelve year old boy with an ill father and unregistered brother (and therefore unable to work), finds himself the main breadwinner of his family even though he himself is too young to work.
Set in the ruins of what was Nazi Germany, it might be expected that political discussions would be central. But to this family, politics is of no interest, not even worthy of consideration. They care only about food and electricity (and cigarettes).
However Edmund, his efforts to feed his family increasingly neglected, falls under the influence of a dubious former teacher of his, Herr Henning. While some of his motives remain ambiguous – his creepy manner is borderline paedophilic – others are very apparent to the audience at least, if not to Edmund. It is clear that Herr Henning has not abandoned the past regime. And it is under this control that Edmund falls.
Where Rome, Open City was set in … well … Rome, and Paisà’s various strands set around Italy, Germany Year Zero sees Rossellini abandon his native country for the first time to film in … well … Germany. But in many respects the setting remains the same – war-torn city streets strewn with rubble, surrounded by empty skeletons of buildings.
It is this sense of location that is undoubtedly the strongest element of Germany Year Zero, and of the trilogy as a whole. There is a strange, unsettling beauty to the images. Bright sunlight pours into buildings through non-existent rooftops, casting light and shadows on the dark dealings down below. The sharp contrast between light and dark is excellently accentuated in black and white.
But as well as the streets and buildings, it is the people and background events that inhabit them that bring a flavour to the film. In one scene we see a group of starving people cutting chunks of a dead horse lying in the street.
This atmosphere is undoubtedly due to the documentary origins of Rome, Open City. Rossellini did not begin with the idea of making a narrative film. He saw his native Italy in ruins and wanted to capture the struggles of his countrymen through documentary. But he eventually decided narrative cinema could have a similar impact. However the style remained intact. He kept the street-side camera view, and some of the stories he had seen.
While the first half of Germany Year Zero clearly follows this pattern set by the previous films, the second half is noticeably different. The narrative takes on a far more melodramatic tone, much to the film’s detriment. It is telling that more of Germany Year Zero was filmed in a studio than the earlier two films. The sense of hardened reality from earlier is lost, replaced by traditional drama.
Collectively, Rossellini’s War Trilogy is one of the triumphs of 1940s Italian neo-realism. But Germany Year Zero, despite its strong first half, loses its direction and is the weakest of the three. And it is also overshadowed by the true neo-realist masterpiece of 1948, Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’.