The last film in Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy is a lot like the first, Rome, Open City. Germany Year Zero also uses a few days in the lives of some citizens to tell the story of a city’s relationship to the war. It, too, becomes a study of how the vicissitudes of life in wartime can provide momentary respite from suffering that just makes the rest of the characters’ lives seem even worse in comparison. But this time there’s a pretty drastic change from Rome, Open City and Paisan. German Year Zero is set in post-war Berlin. It’s Rossellini’s change of subject from his people to those who oppressed them that makes this a remarkable movie. He doesn’t hate the Germans, at least not most of them. Indeed, the young protagonist, Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is given the same treatment as Don Pietro Pelligrini was in R,OC, an understanding, empathetic portrayal. It’s only the Nazi-affiliated characters that Rossellini clearly disapproves of, disappointingly recreating the gay depiction seen in the first film of the trilogy and adding in pedophilia for good measure.
Germany Year Zero is only 73 minutes long but it packs a lot of incident into its short length. Rossellini proves that European art-house cinema doesn’t necessitate slow-burn movies with a lot of quiet scenes with abstract meanings. I love Bergman and Resnais as much as the next guy, but Rossellini makes a case for quickly-paced movies that still retain a depth of character, emotion, and meaning. He sketches out almost a dozen characters and, though Edmund is clearly the most developed, the rest get enough characterization to make me feel for them and understand what they’re going through. That makes for a complex and layered movie that also hits at the gut level. The story, generally speaking, is Edmund’s descent into a hell of starvation, illness, and vice. It’s not his fault, entirely. Everybody he encounters is out for themselves or looking for ways to use him for their own ends. The regrettable Nazi characters all leer at him while they bring him into their perverted worlds. The other kids are too worldly for their age. The families he is packed into a small apartment with all jealously guard their few possessions and think poorly of the young boy looking for a way to survive. Only when Edmund is alone does he seem at all like a boy you or I would know. Even then, his playground is the rubble and ruins of a bombed-out Berlin. Every little scene matters, every setting–whether outdoors in the real city or in the apartment that was filmed on a stage in Italy–adds to the feelings of despair and moral decay that pervade the film.
Rossellini’s use of non-professional actors, this time from Berlin and just as starving as the characters they’re portraying, never once backfires. Each of the characters feels like the real deal, from the former Nazi soldier afraid to turn himself into the police to his old, ailing father who hates the Nazi and hates himself even more for not standing up to them, each actor hits every character note perfectly. But it is little Edmund who makes the whole thing work. His angelic look belies his mercenary will to survive, up to and including murder. His vacillations between cutting up a dead horse on the street for some meat and trying to get in on an impromptu game of soccer feel within his character. But he is a young kid and easily swayed by those who seem to know more than he does. His former schoolteacher, also a former Nazi, uses him to sell records with Hitler’s speeches on them and clearly wants to use him for more than that. He espouses the kind of social darwinism that formed the foundation of Nazi thought to Edmund, who uses that backwards thinking to justify the worst of his actions. Even then, Edmund is not fully corrupted. He goes within himself, running away from his family and roaming the war-ravaged streets. Edmund stands in for all of Germany, its people, the nation, and the land itself. What has become of him, of them, of it? Where will it go from here?
The allegorical nature of Germany Year Zero appeals to me–I love a good allegory–but it also works as a character study of Edmund and a city study of a destroyed Berlin. These elements keep it from being one-note and overly didactic, something Rossellini avoids in all three of his War movies. He still has a point of view, of course, and he expresses it clearly and passionately. But his War trilogy reads like an expansive epic and an intimate character work at the same time, a plea for peace in all situations, a prayer for strength, and a call for understanding. Taken separately, each film is great. Taken together, they’re stunning.