Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Germania anno zero

1948, Italy, directed by Roberto Rossellini (Germany Year Zero)
Germania anno zero is the most pared-down and also the most unrelenting of Rossellini's (post-) wartime trilogy, set, unlike the previous films, in Berlin and filmed two summers after the end of the war, with the city clearly still in the most abject of states. The film opens with a title that indicates that it purports to be an "objective and true portrait of Berlin", reminiscent of the documentary trappings that frame the six vignettes in Paisà, although this film, unlike its immediate predecessor, does not have a specific documentary basis.

However, what it shares with Paisà is the sense - amplified here - that the end of the war does not, in and of itself, bring true liberation: for many people, it's simply the beginning of a new, and often equally devastating phase (it's also an act of great daring to invite us to sympathize with the ordinary citizens of a country so recently vilified and defeated, although the ending might be read as a comment on the need for a kind of purge before the page can be turned).

The physical and economic destruction that we see from the film's opening scenes is paralleled by the moral collapse that has infected many people, children most of all; younger characters have peripheral, if sometimes significant, roles in the two previous films in the trilogy, whereas here they are the central focus, with the film following young Edmund as he attempts to make some contribution to his family's well-being. His downward spiral is perhaps best encapsulated by the two tracking shots that follow his progress near the beginning and end of the film: the first sees him confidently stride through the city, whereas later, the weight of experience has become crushing, and the streets themselves seem oppressive (his claustrophobic home is hardly better, with Rossellini crowding the shots to emphasize the press of humanity).

The war and its aftermath have created opportunities for predators more than for honest people, with usurers and thieves abounding. As in Roma, citta apertà there's also something sexually predatory about the ex-Nazi teacher that Edmund encounters; Rossellini isn't capable of limiting his corruption to the economic and political levels. It's a persistent cliché that weakens the film somewhat. There are moments, too, drawn from the purest melodrama rather than the well of neo-realism, perhaps most especially a sequence involving a glass filled with poison, but the film as a whole has an air of authentic despair that's on occasion quite devastating.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States