Germany, Year Zero
The film is in German, the third of what was known as the “War Trilogy” by Italian neo-realist Roberto Rossellini. The first two were made about the Italy during the war; this is about Germany after the war. The exteriors were shot in Berlin, which provided endless backdrops of skeletal ruins. There was very little left of the city after Allied Bomber Command got through with it. Food was rationed and in very short supply. As was his style, Rossellini filmed it with non-actors that he cast from off the street, and they were suffering as much as anyone else in the city. They were taken to Rome to shoot the interior scenes, and when the shooting was delayed they fattened up so much they had to be put on a diet to match the earlier footage! That must have been very hard for them. As Scarlett O’Hara found out, once you have experienced real hunger, you find that you will lie, steal, cheat, or kill to never feel hungry again. When the shooting was over, no one wanted to go back, and in fact some of them took to the hills to avoid it.
The story was largely improvised, as was the dialogue. It concerns a 12-year-old boy, Edward, living in a ruined building with a lot of other people and his family: An invalid father, an older sister, and a brother who was in the army, and fought to the last gasp of the fucking Nazi regime. The brother has been free-loading on the family, “hiding out,” he says, because they will throw him in a POW camp if they find him. I felt from the first that he was hugely overestimating his importance to the occupying force, and I was proved right. In the end, he’s just a lazy freeloader making things very hard for the rest by forcing them to find a way to feed four people with only three ration cards. He’s beneath contempt, but what do you expect from a fucking Nazi?
Things are incredibly harsh. Very early on we see a dead horse lying in the road, and people are swarming around it, butchering it, until the authorities arrive and run them off. Hell, I’d eat it. The French do. Women follow coal trucks to scrounge the bits that fall off. Edward runs into an old teacher who is peddling recordings of Hitler and seems to still think the Third Reich will rise again. The man seems to be a pedophile, from the way he can’t keep his hands off little Edward, but there is some debate online about that, some people feeling that Germans and Italians are not so shy about male-to-male contact as Americans and English are. Myself, I’m sure he was a chickenhawk.
Here’s the place for a half-hearted spoiler warning. You know it will end badly, but maybe you won’t foresee how. The father is disgusted with his state, and goes on and on about how he wishes he would die so he won’t be a burden to the others. Little Edward takes him literally, steals some poison, and puts it in father’s tea. Father dies. No one suspects anything, but when the teacher berates him (only worried that someone will blame him for a rant he gave the boy about survival of the fittest), and his life looks bleakest, Edward decides he can’t go on, and throws himself off a sixth-floor ruin. Finis. Not quite the movie you want to see if you’re looking for a lotta laughs, right? And I didn’t like it as much as other Rossellini films I’ve seen. Glad I saw it, but this will be the only time.