Review: Germany Year Zero (1948)

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A pivotal film in the canon of Italian neorealism, Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 Germany Year Zero epitomizes the post-war fatalism which characterized the majority of the period’s films, exploring the fate of the ordinary classes in Berlin left behind in the rubble after the fall of the Third Reich.

Forced to leave school and work digging graves in order to earn enough money to keep his impoverished family alive, thirteen year old Edmund Koehler experiences first-hand the damning influence of the Nazi legacy upon the German youth.

One of the great things about Germany Year Zero is the manner in which it employs its characters to explore the condition of a nation, assigning them allegorical roles and utilizing these to portray the lasting effect of the war upon the German people. Rossellini makes use of in particular the generational gaps between his characters to contrast the concepts of the old Germany and the new. In many ways, the character of Edmund’s father can be read as an incarnation of Germany itself immediately after the war: bedridden, terminally ill, impotent, Herr Koehler mirrors the crippled nation in the aftermath of its defeat. He, like his homeland, relies on his children—the next generation, the “new” Germany — to support and sustain him. Edmund’s brother Karl-Heinz, too, reflects the burden placed upon the next generation by their predecessors, his character a representation of the crushing guilt lingering in German society. Eligible for a food ration card, he refuses to register for it, fearful that he will be prosecuted as a war criminal. Edmund’s sister, Eva, frequents nightclubs, flirting with American soldiers and pocketing the cigarettes they offer her so that she might later sell them. Her enterprise is almost reminiscent of prostitution; she has been driven to using her sexuality as a means by which to make money and support her family.

It is of significance that Herr Koehler’s youngest child is the one who primarily supports the family, placing emphasis upon the idea of the youth as the ones upon whom the real consequences of the Second World War will be visited. The image of a child has long served as cinematic shorthand for the future, and Rossellini exploits this connection in conveying the future he sees for Germany through the character of Edmund and the events which befall him. Unable to find employment, Edmund resorts to petty thieving, scamming the rich so that he may afford bread. The turning of the youth to criminality is representative of their corruption by the Nazi legacy, and the fact that there is little to no chance of redemption for their already ruined society. Germany Year Zero’s characters each serve an important function, showing various aspects of the way in which Germany was indelibly harmed by the actions of the Nazis. The dwelling on the life of a family — the single unit of a society—serves to demonstrate the pervasive influence of the war upon the ordinary people. Edmund and his family will never overcome the legacy they have been left with, and Rossellini’s unwaveringly tragic narrative suggests the country as a whole may never do so either.

Complicated and thought-provoking though its story may be, the true wonder of Germany Year Zero lies in its phenomenal visual power; the film heavily utilizes elements of expressionism to convey its intended meanings. As well as purely narrative methodology, Rossellini employs his images to communicate the state of post-war German society. Tall ruins dwarf the characters in the street scenes, casting vast and foreboding shadows which convey the solemn legacy of Nazi Germany over every aspect of the country’s future. Appropriately, given the film’s setting, Rossellini builds on aspects of German Expressionism to externalize his characters and impose them onto the scenery, the dark night scenes in which Edmund falls yet further into criminality clearly indicative of his symbolic departure into a world of hopelessness and lawlessness. The dazzling whiteness of many of the film’s daytime exterior scenes contributes a dreamlike sensation, as though these characters are completely removed from any sort of normal reality, the uncertain void they have been thrust into casting them in a nihilistic world of great white nothingness.

Perhaps the single defining factor in what makes Germany Year Zero a truly great film is the extraordinary compassion and humanism Rossellini demonstrates toward the collapsed nation he takes as his subject. Taking a sympathetic approach to the country just three years after the war’s end was an undeniably risqué move, Germany’s image throughout the world tarnished with a lingering resentment. Even working with the tragedy of Edmund’s shattered existence with its hopeless future, Rossellini was taking a brave and admirable step in standing shoulder to shoulder with those who, just three years prior, had been his enemies. Germany Year Zero stands in Rossellini’s War Trilogy as the German equivalent to the earlier Rome Open City. Shot among the real rubble of post-war Berlin, it is demonstrative proof that the issues affecting the future of Italy were just as bad, even worse, in Germany.

Germany Year Zero is one of Rossellini’s great realist films, complementing his work in Rome Open City and Paisan through showing that the issues affecting post-war Italy also affected the future of Germany, often ignored in cinema and in real life. Successfully mingling a realist aesthetic with one of expressionism, Rossellini crafts a probing and extraordinarily bleak dissection of social issues and the hopelessness of Germany’s future.

[notification type=”star”]95/100 – Successfully mingling a realist aesthetic with one of expressionism, Germany Year Zero is a probing and extraordinarily bleak dissection of social issues and the hopelessness of Germany’s future.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.