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Roberto Rossellini - Spotlight of the Month
Remind Me

Germany Year Zero

The story of a young boy who loses his soul to the ravages of warfare, Germany, Year Zero (1947) examines the struggle to reinvent meaning in a physically and morally devastated society. It's the final picture in Roberto Rossellini's hard-hitting "war trilogy," the prior installments being Rome, Open City (1946) and Paisan (1946). These films are landmarks in the evolution of Italian neo-realist cinema, a deeply compelling technique that infuses fictional storylines with semi-documentary renderings of time and place.

Germany, Year Zero couldn't have been further removed from the escapist pictures that were coming out of America at the time. As the story opens, World War II has ended. Berliners are trying to regroup, then rebuild their Allied-occupied city. The main character, twelve year-old Edmund Koeler (Edmund Moeschke), is forced to grow up quickly amidst the ruins, especially since his father (Ernst Pittschau) is too ill to earn a living. Everyone in Edmund's family suffers. His mother has been killed. His older brother, Karl (Franz Kruger), is a former Nazi soldier who's terrified that he'll be jailed as a war criminal; he can't register with the authorities, so finding work is impossible. Edmund's adult sister, Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), resists the unfortunately obvious route of becoming a prostitute. These desperate circumstances will lead Edmund to commit what can only be called a brutal act of compassion, one that shatters the remaining vestiges of his pre-war existence.

Early in his life, Rossellini (who fathered actress Isabella Rossellini while married to Ingrid Bergman) would have seemed an unlikely candidate to direct such a film. The product of a wealthy Roman family, he found himself working for Benito Mussolini's Fascist-controlled motion picture unit while still in his 30's; he even wrote screenplays with the leader's son, Vittorio Mussolini. But Rossellini asserted a new viewpoint when he shot Rome, Open City, and continued to do so with the other pictures in his trilogy.

His seemingly haphazard approach to shooting invests Germany, Year Zero with an indisputable raw energy. This experimentation was even extended to the casting decisions and script development. Knowing only that he wanted to make a film about post-war Germany, Rossellini visited the country looking for inspiration. His sojourn posed many questions: "The Germans were human beings like us," he once said. "What could have lead them to this disaster? False morality, the very essence of Nazism? Abandonment of humility for the cult of heroism? Exaltation for force, rather than weakness? Pride rather than sympathy?" He would seek the answers while improvising a film.

The cast of Germany, Year Zero was chosen from non-performers who were discovered in bombed-out Berlin. Pittschau (who, it turned out, had acted in a few silent pictures) was living in a public home for the aged. The "resigned despair" on Hinze's face struck Rossellini when he saw her waiting in line for food. Kruger came from a family of scholars, and, along with his father, had been jailed by the Gestapo. And Moeschke was a circus hand who Rossellini noticed when he was actually more interested in checking out some performing elephants. The boy's resemblance to Rossellini's late son sealed the deal. "Anyone can act," the director said, "provided he is in familiar surroundings and given lines that are natural."

He wasn't kidding, either. The process of creating Germany, Year Zero's dialogue is best illustrated by an exchange Rossellini had with Moeschke during one of their first meetings: "You must be very rich," Moeschke said. "Only very rich people can have a tablecloth in Germany." "You'll say that in my film," Rossellini replied.

Director: Roberto Rossellini
Producers: Roberto Rossellini and Alfredo Guarini Screenplay: Roberto Rossellini and Max Kolpe
Cinematography: Robert Juillard
Editing: Eraldo Da Roma
Sound: Kurt Doubrowsky
Art Direction: Piero Filippone
Principal Cast: Edmund Moeschke (Edmund), Ernst Pittschau (Herr Koeler), Ingetraud Hinze (Eva), Franz Kruger (Karl), Erich Guhne (Herr Enning).

by Paul Tatara