Germany, Year Zero

The third chapter in Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy Germany, Year Zero (1947) begins with an introductory voice-over explaining the film as the examination of the plight of a child and a people, “living in tragedy as though it were their natural element”. Aerial shots overlap the broken city of Berlin, two elderly women joke about jumping into the graves they are digging and the camera pans jerkily toward a young boy with spindly arms and legs working hard to dig a deep grave in a cemetery full of hungry looking hunched bodies. The young boy is ‘Edmund’, the film’s central character. He is questioned about his age-eligibility for a work permit and the camera stays with him, watching and waiting for his response. A woman holds his face in her hands and says with contempt: “He is too young to be working, I know him, he went to school with my son, he is 12, taking the bread from our mouths”. Edmund pulls away and the camera watches him as he runs towards the crumbling city of Berlin which offers him no escape.

Germany, Year Zero

Edmund Moeschke, found in a travelling circus where his parents were performers, sinks seamlessly into the role of Edmund the Neorealist child who inhabits a ruined and collapsed world in the quietness of zero point. Struggling to keep the family from suffering in the post-world war setting of destitution, desperation and hardship, Edmund’s sister goes out at night to ‘dance’ with soldiers and sell cigarettes and his brother, an ex-Nazi soldier, remains in hiding from the authorities. Meanwhile their father lies in bed, dying of malnutrition, mumbling: “it would be better if I died but I don’t have the courage to kill myself”.

Edmund wanders aimlessly through the Berlin streets and is met with tension behind doors, in tenement flats and the crumbling city streets – a world of confusion, disillusion, complication, rejection, dejection, fear, and disturbance. As the lightweight Neorealist camera follows Edmund, watching him in a kind of pseudo-documentary way, time seems to float and the film’s rhythm breaks down into a non-causal irrational bleed of fragments, moments and repeated gestures. Edmund runs a hand over his face, wipes his nose with a handkerchief, is distracted momentarily by the sound of a church organ and sits in the gutter with downcast eyes, gazing at his feet, head in hands – a series of simple and profoundly disturbing moments that are difficult to watch for their inescapable banality and incessancy as much for their troublesome subject matter. Trivial and transient, these moments appear like traces of memory, quiet mind interludes or hallucinations with no beginning and no end, and are more concerned with feelings, emotions and thoughts than specific actions. Pushed into a difficult watching-thinking space that lies somewhere between documentary and film, we are allowed as viewers to watch with the eyes of a ‘seer’ who records and witnesses the desolate plight of a child while not being able to offer any condolence.

Children with the scars of war on their wide-eyed faces appear like shadows of human beings caught in an in-between world where feelings, memories and moments hang unresolved, waiting to fall into their own zero points, to places the camera cannot trace. Like the Neorealist genre it is part of, Germany, Year Zero challenges the silver-screen dream of Hollywood escapism and confronts the viewer with a series of aberrant images, moments and ideas, allowing us to experience the moments and feelings as they wash over us.

A black market recording of Hitler’s speech, heard over the images of a hollow, war torn city, stretches far beyond the duration of the ‘story line’ and hangs heavily as a commentary on the failed post-World War II German position; just as Edmund, the image of Hitler Youth, creates an imprint or memory scar evocative of war-front photography, which lingers long after the film’s duration.

Haunted by the shadows of skeleton-buildings, the Neorealist world of Germany is quiet and plaintive. Its surface and the faces of its youth, pockmarked with scars. It is a world where the young have faces of the old, smoke cigarettes and sell themselves into hard labour, street crime or prostitution. Rossellini follows the events with distance, the distance of somebody who doesn’t speak the language and is working through a feeling rather than a story, allowing the events to take shape through the reality of the city streets, in the faces, lives and dialect of the non-actors plucked from their natural environments to re-enact the stories of their own people.

Playing in the streets Edmund, encounters an old school teacher who strokes his fine blonde hair and lectures him in Nazi ideology and Social Darwinism, telling him that it is “only the strong who survive”. In considering that Edmund’s father is old and sick, the teacher suggests it would be better if he were dead. Following this encounter, Edmund administers the ‘courage’ that he thinks his father is looking for by putting poison in his tea, and in a series of broken aberrant long takes and swipe-shots, the troubled Edmund wanders the streets looking for condolence and escape in dealing with the painful realisation of what he has done.

Everywhere he turns the world turns away from him, and as the audience, we watch his plight but cannot help. His teacher calls him a monster, the teenagers of the street “don’t mess with babies”, the younger children take their ball and leave Edmund to contemplate his shadow as a playmate and, on returning home, he creeps into the building and sits on the staircase, head in hands. Throughout a close-up that stays with Edmund for a painful duration of seconds, his face, cast in half-light, looks older, harder and hollower. The mellow, basal hum of violin strings and a kettledrum that make up Renzo Rossellini’s musical soundtrack, further mark out a strange rhythm that rises, falls and fades away, creating an extension of the haunting, shadowy surfaces and the mood of uncertainty and pain like the incessant beating of a heart.

Objects, spaces, bodies and sounds become eventful in themselves, such as the expression on Edmund’s face, the sound of his feet on the stones or the pop of the pretend gun he uses to shoot himself in the forehead as he plays in the moments before dying. Each element is recorded with the same level of (non)attention. The pieces of sound, language, shade, movement and gesture fill the in-between spaces with emotion, feelings and memory. Sounds, speech and imagery float in the air like fragments, pieces of torn up letters, war-front photography, news footage or snippets of conversation caught in a bread line.

Lulled into a floating film diary of non-dramatic moments that delineate and stray off the causal action-reaction stepping stones we have been trained to follow, Germany, Year Zero confronts its audience with a seminal psycho-visual assault, shutting the door on the traditional film-audience relationship and creating a space of unresolved uncertainty in its raw-edged immediacy.

Gazing down from the shell of a decrepit building into the streets where he has walked, played and worked, Edmund looks into a world that he has misjudged, a world that has rejected and neglected him. With a painful sigh he takes off his jacket, rubs his hand over his face and plunges into a nowhere space. Rossellini shows the child’s crumpled body as just another piece of the debris, confronting us with the unresolvable honesty and blatancy of the image for seconds before the screen cuts to black.

About The Author

Tina Marie Camilleri is a Sydney based artist and writer who is currently studying film at Sydney University.

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