Friday, December 2, 2011

#499: Germany Year Zero

(Roberto Rossellini, 1948)

Germany Year Zero is the logical conclusion to Rossellini's War Trilogy and a masterpiece that is equal to its two predecessors. Perhaps more than any other movie, it deals with the concept of guilt, of living with your past even as it crumbles around you. It's also a remarkably compassionate movie and perhaps the truest Neo-Realist film I've ever seen. After all - any Italian communist can make a film about a poor man who gets his bicycle/livelihood stolen. It takes a true humanist to look their enemy in the face and see themselves.

Much has been said of the film's preface, which begins "This movie, shot in the summer of 1947 in Berlin, aims only to be an objective and true portrait of this large, almost totally destroyed city." Aside from the obvious philosophical problems with believing any fictional (or really even non-fictional) film could be an objective assessment of anything, the movie still clearly takes a stand for and against a number of its characters. Certainly the two main Nazi sympathizers in the film - Edmund's brother and teacher - are portrayed as the dregs of society: his brother is too cowardly to turn himself in to face his punishment for crimes he may have committed and chooses instead to feed off other people's rations, while his teacher is quite clearly and disconcertingly a pedophile. And Edmund himself is undoubtedly portrayed in a sympathetic light - even aside from the fact that Rossellini dedicated the film to his son who had recently died.

But Rossellini was making a political statement more than a narrative one by including the preface. Objectivity might not have been his goal, but he used it as a shield for his true purpose: to ask his audience to stand in German shoes for 75 minutes. The most chilling moment of the film (and probably all three in the series) is when Edmund plays a now-illegal recording of Hitler on a portable turntable in order to sell it to some Allied collectors. The words echo through the bombed out building in which they stand and a man with his son hears the sounds of a dead leader that destroyed and terrorized his country resurrected. Germany Year Zero is a heart-breaking look at the moment when your history reaches a dead end, but your future has yet to reveal itself. Ultimately, Edmund decision to kill his father - as the old man goes on about his regret for his generation's tragic decisions - and then Edmund's final decision to end his own life represent the corner Germany's next generation has been painted into, regardless of their own lack of any real connection to their country's atrocities.  We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.

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