Roberto Rossellini and World War II: Part Three

“The darkest part of the tragedy was when the Germans occupied Italy, after Italy had signed the armistice. So I wanted to see the Germans close-up, to see them in the context of their tragedy, their drama.” This is how Roberto Rossellini introduced a French television broadcast in 1963 of Deutschland im Jahre Null (Germany, Year Zero). While the French, Italian and English titles of the film are often used, it is the original German title that appears on the newly restored Criterion Collection edition.

To sound the film’s title, in German, as the camera dollies and pans to reveal block after block of bombed-out Berlin, is a visual and aural shocker. The guttural sound of Deutschland im Jahre Null, rather than the mellifluous Italian of Germania, Anno Zero echoes the utter wasteland that was this city two years after the Third Reich crumbled into rubble, victim of Allied bombing of an unprecedented scale. This film, the last in Rossellini’s War Trilogy, documents the once proud civilization of Goethe, Bach, Schiller and Beethoven—its citizens now reduced to scavengers in an opportunistic struggle for survival among the scrap piles that once were their shops and homes. An eleven year old boy, Edmund Meschke, the unlikely Vergil who will guide us through this Inferno, is a non-actor but he carries the dramatic weight not only of the film itself, but of an entire culture choking on the ashes of its burned-out buildings, death camps, and crematoriums cached in the countryside.

In a video documentary included in The Criterion Collection set, Carlo Lizzani, writer and assistant director of the film (replacing Fellini, who was not available) discusses the origins of the film’s script amid the emotional vortex encircling Rossellini. The director was still deeply affected by the death of his son Romano, who at age nine had recently succumbed to appendicitis:

The idea was one page—a story that made your blood run cold, a vision of the war that was much harsher than in Rome, Open City or Paisan, a desperate vision, a very bitter vision. (Carlo Lizzani)

This bitter vision is present in the very first scenes of the film. Edmund is first seen as a gravedigger, trying to earn a few pennies, but he is driven off by even more desperate adults. He watches people cluster around a horse’s carcass as they try to cut away its meat. He crosses a street and scoops up some coal lumps that have fallen off a passing truck. Such is the ritual of his daily life.

By the time filming began in August of 1947, the script had evolved into a fifteen page treatment; it was never fully developed. The storyline is sparse. Edmund (in real life a young acrobat cast by Rossellini from a local circus) spends much of his time in the streets, along with other children, trying to find any means of providing income for their families. Edmund’s mother is dead. His older brother (Karl-Heinz), a fearful and unrepentant Nazi soldier, is hiding from Allied authorities. His invalid father prays for his own quick demise. On the streets, Edmund is prey to unscrupulous men who use him and the other children to cheat and rob occupying allied soldiers and German citizens alike. One of them, his ex-teacher (Henning), extols a Third Reich Darwinian survivalist credo. Between Henning’s harangues and his own father’s pleas to die, Edmund decides to poison his father in order to release him.

The fallout from this secret parricide isolates him from everyone. In the final scenes Edmund again wanders through the streets, climbs high up into a ruined building and sees his father’s casket being loaded into a hearse. Edmund lets go. The bleak ending encapsulates the Zeitgeist of a city and of a people at the end of its tether. Edmund becomes in the sense of Classical Greece, the sacrificial scapegoat.

Rossellini exhibited great affection for Edmund during production and several historians have suggested that he chose Edmund partly because of a resemblance the boy had to his dead son, Roberto.

Rossellini and Edmund Koehler between takes.

Edmund’s closest friends are an older boy who is survival savvy and who tries to enlist Edmund in his schemes, and a slightly older girl, who, while protective of Edmund’s innocence, seems to have already lost hers; she exhibits a sexual awareness beyond her years. But this unlikely trio is only a weak bastion against the predations that surround them.

The unlikely trio in a world of rubble.

In one of the most haunting scenes, Edmund tries to sell a record player to some GIs.

Edmund selling a gramaphone to two GIs.

The disc that he plays amid the dark ruins is of a ranting Hitler.

A father, out walking with his son, stops and looks with fear toward the sound’s source.

Father and son hear Hitler.

The camera then cuts to an exterior panning shot of block after block of rubble, the real world, end result of the mad philosophy issuing from the record, now nothing more than the mocking echo of an illusory world.

The Fuher's rant fades into the ruins.

Germany, Year Zero was funded largely by the French government company, UGC. Rossellini was highly regarded in France due to the critical success of his two previous films and he was able to secure funding and crew during his prep in Paris. As cinematographer, he chose Robert Juillard, who a few years later was to photograph another film of children lost in the madness of war, Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits, (Forbidden Games).

The American producer David Selznick had tried to lure Rossellini to Hollywood to make more commercial American films, but Rossellini demurred. Many of his friends were surprised, even dismayed at such an opportunity lost. But Rossellini’s commitment of restoring European cinema was more urgent to him than any unpredictable and transient success in Hollywood. And he was right. By continuing to work in Europe, he not only had freedom to explore his own eclectic tendencies in ever more protean style and themes, but he inspired a generation of emerging filmmakers. The Taviani brothers proclaimed Paisan to be their “Road to Damascus,” the film that gave them the inspiration and conviction to pursue a career. Then there is Truffaut. It should be no surprise that Germany, Year Zero was a watershed for the young Truffaut, and it was the first Rossellini film he saw. The long tracking shots of a running Antoine Doinel at the end of The 400 Blows find their antecedent in similar shots that follow a more leaden Edmund through the twisted rubble of central Berlin.

The camera tracks Edmund on his odyssey to oblivion.

In 1963, Tuffaut stated that:

Aside from Vigo, Rossellini is the only filmmaker who has filmed adolescence without sentimentality, and The 400 Blows owes a great deal to his Germany, Year Zero.

It is not the children from just this single Rossellini film that Truffaut speaks of. The packs of oft-times homeless ragazzi that pervade the trilogy reflect not only the tragedy that came out of the war; they are also a source of hope. These children, watching the priest Don Pietro murdered in an open field at the end of Rome, Open City, are next seen walking down a Roman hillside, the dome of St. Peter’s in the background, down into the Eternal City, into their future.

Rossellini arrived in Berlin to begin prep on the film about nine months after the end of the war. In a 1963 interview for French television, he spoke of the state of the city upon his arrival

We drove through the whole city in ruins to get to the French Sector. Everything was grey except for a yellow sign mounted on a stone block. It read, “Bazaar Israel.” … I think that was the greatest sign of Germany’s defeat.

A Jew had returned, and he had triumphantly hung out his sign for business.

Even though Edmund is often seen among other children, he always seems to stand apart.

Edmund watches other boys at play.

The camera moves with him almost in dogged pursuit, not leading him in a frontal, revealing angle, but more often in profile, or holding on him as he crosses the camera axis and moves into the always desolate background. Sometimes, Edmund just stops, and looks into the distance as if somehow the bleak, harsh world around him were only a bad dream. At times, he can’t even continue.

Edmund, at the end of his tether.

Composer Renzo Rossellini, Roberto’s brother, wrote a musical score markedly different from the almost operatic grandeur and large-scale sentiment of the first two films of the trilogy. This music, once the full symphonic bloat of the opening credits relents, mainly intones a relentless, grindingly circular theme that only further contributes to an atmosphere of entrapment. The music stalks Edmund; finally, he enters another bombed out ruin and climbs the exposed stairs to escape his malaise, somehow to find release.

The release that Edmund finds is not a heroic death while fighting a malevolent force, nor the sacrifice of selfless love—both of these themes being dominant throughout Rome, Open City and Paisan. What he sees— as he stands at the open edge of one ruined building, looking down and across to another, and yet another, even as the hearse bearing the father he has murdered in the name of this “release”—is the void, the Null of the title. For him, it is not year zero of the beginning of a new German state, one that he can walk forward to and embrace. He is one of the lost ones, the Darwinian weak that Henning had abused. Edmund is one with the rubble in which his inert body lies, detritus that will soon be scooped up and dumped in a remote place, far from the New Germany that will rise phoenix-like to become once again dominant in Europe, and all of this within the life span of Edmund’s own generation.

Edmund walks toward his future.

3 Responses to “Roberto Rossellini and World War II: Part Three”

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  • this movie( with i have the blessings of seen it a the cinema” la cinemateca dominicana”; for the first time last year) made an impact so profound(tears come near my eyes just reading this post) in my life; that was almost a prophecy…months latter that prophecy proves itself to be truth as i found myself shooting the behind the scenes of a tv show on the destroyed streets of port au prince; (that was on the Saturday 16; just for days after the tragedy that struck Haiti)

    much latter; when i could think a bit about what i saw without shrouding in fear(and after reading: “le lumiere au cinema”) i came to realize what a great movie “Germany year zero” really is…the great movie of modernity and is godless search for meaning amidst a world in chaos.

  • John, I’d not seen Germany: Year Zero until inspired by your blogs several weeks ago. I was drawn to watch the first two films of the ‘trilogy’, as well. I’d seen those two in theaters years ago, but not thought of them as part of a trilogy. To view the three in this context is a rich and telling experience.

    The three films share a theme of sacrifice and redemption: Rome: Open City and Paisan are told from the Allies’ perspective, while Germany: Year Zero is told from the enemy’s, at the War’s aftermath. Each of the three ends with tragic death. In the first two, there is a joining together to fight a common external enemy; the films offer the hope of renewal. But Part 3, which examines an enemy within, suggests that in order for the defeated to heal they must heal themselves. Unfortunately, the boy, Edmund, who might represent the hope of his country, cannot. He’s a child who’s been severely traumatized. The shock of seeing his father’s coffin taken away, leads Edmund – in an impulsive, irreversible moment – to commit suicide. No chance for renewal.

    Although Germany: Year Zero was made over 60 years ago, it has relevance today. The wounds of that period still haunt. After seeing GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO recently, I was drawn to read the hugely popular Stieg Larrson trilogy, the plot of which hinges on a “…strain of Nazism still festering away in Swedish society.” From Larrson, I’ve moved onto novels (all thrillers, by the way) set in Europe during the period of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s where the main characters are sympathetically-drawn Germans caught up in the mayhem of the Nazi rule. The authors seem intent on letting the reader know that not all Germans of the time, including soldiers, were brutal killers. The recent film THE WHITE RIBBON, which examines sadistic impulses among German children in the first decades of the 20th Century, is another example of a need our artists have to examine the roots and consequences of Nazi brute force and hegemony.

    In Rome: Open City and Paisan, Rossellini holds out hope that through the efforts of a new generation change is likely to come. However, Germany: Year Zero suggests a Rossellini staring into a deep emotional abyss after the death of his child. If there is hope for change in Germany: Year Zero, unlike in the first two films, it is not obvious.

    Questions remain.

    Although Rossellini went on to make at least 37 more films, I don’t believe he ever achieved the artistic heights and profound relevance embodied in his World War II Trilogy.

  • John, inspired by your recent blogs, after viewing Rossellini’s War Trilogy last month, I moved on to Andrzej Wajda’s ground-breaking War Trilogy: GENERATION, KANAL and ASHES AND DIAMONDS. Poland’s Wajda acknowledges his debt to Rossellini and the Italian Neo-Realists. Their films inspired Wajda to tell stories based on the WW II experiences of his fellow countrymen, including people he knew personally. Wajda’s sensibilities were shared by others of his generation. They were consistent with a Poland that despite the domination and censorship of a culturally and politically repressive Soviet-styled officialdom, which promoted the tenets of Socialist realism, was attempting to re-define itself by speaking more openly about Poland’s recent history in the aftermath of WW II. Wajda’s visual style is less documentary-driven than the Italians’, being primarily expressionistic. Solid, deep-space compositions; a chiaroscuro lighting approach of strong black/white tonal contrasts; a careful blocking of actors within each wide-angle-lensed frame. His masterful cinematographers were Jerzy Wojcik and Jerzy Lipman, the latter, Wajda’s classmate at the Lodz Film School in the early ‘50s. There are framings that suggest Orson Welles’, as in Gregg Toland’s CITIZEN KANE and Russell Metty’s TOUCH OF EVIL. The new “Polish School” of filmmaking, which emerged in the ‘50s with its emphasis on the role of the individual as opposed to the collective, attributes Wajda as a key figure. For fans of B&W cinematography as it depicts existential angst, his War Trilogy is definitely worth the viewing.

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