Roberto Rossellini

Germania anno zero 28 May 06

Section: rossellini

Categories: Film / in-a-cinema

I have rarely seen a film with such a clear partisanship for children as expressed in this one. The compassion of its content is imprinted on the celluloid and the old, scratchy sound-track.

My further comments reveal the narrative, so stop reading if you want to see the film without knowing the story.

The film follows a 12-year-old boy named Edmund as he tries to survive in the devastation of post-WWII Berlin. He carried the full burden of providing for his family, with a sick father, a sister, and an older brother who was perhaps in his late teens or early twenties and was afraid of leaving their building for fear of being arrested by the allied forces for his participation in the war as a German soldier.

Like his previous films, Paisà and Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), the film was shot amid the actual circumstances of post-war Europe. Rossellini used non–actors, which I love. The result is the highest form of documentary, of documentation, where we are aware of seeing footage of persons reciting their lines in the physical world, and where the fiction is part of the documentation. The narrative was distilled out of life and experience and the outlook of the filmmaker, which again brings us back to his partisanship for children in the horror and trauma of war.

Edmund was buffeted through the city from person to person, all either adults or children who were older than him, struggling to survive and find some orientation, including moral guidance. He was desperately trying to find a heart but kept ramming up against broken bloody ribs laid bare in the cadaver of the society that had just collapsed. And I don’t merely mean Nazism. The Third Reich was almost a peripheral echo in the ruins of Berlin. The neglect, exploitation, fear, egotism, pedophilia, and pedagogy he met with are endemic to our era still.

In one scene he is sent out by a former school teacher to sell a disc gramophone recording of a speech of Hitler’s. The teacher was of course just using him; he sent him to meet two British soldiers interested in buying the recording. The meeting took place in the bombed–out Reichstag (the parliament). The teacher lent him a hand–cranked gramophone player to demonstrate the recording. He played it for the soldiers behind the shattered walls of the Reichstag with the sound of Hitler’s voice echoing weakly from the devastated building — with the few persons outside scavenging through the debris looking up in jaded wonder at the building.

So I am revealing less than I expected of the narrative, it is too visual and too painful to reduce it to words. But the boy ends up killing himself by leaping from the concrete shell of a building.

Of interest: Rossellini had effectively been a fascist under Mussolini’s rule in Italy. As a young man he got a position turning out propaganda films for Mussolini, possibly due to his friendship with Mussolini’s son. I haven’t seen those earlier films, but I would like to. The implications of this, the impact of material forces and circumstances in society on a person’s outlook and practice, and that person’s ability to change, are still resonating in my mind.

  • Title: Germania anno zero
  • Directed by: Roberto Rossellini
  • Writing credits: Roberto Rossellini, Max Kolpé
  • Starring: Edmund Moeschke, Ernst Pittschau, Ingetraud Hinze, Franz-Otto Krüger, Eruch Gühne...
  • Cinematography: Robert Juillard
  • Year: 1948
  • Cinema: Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt