Reviews and notes
Pictures of bombed-out apartment and office buildings are visible next to scenes of the destroyed Chancellery of the German Reich, where from a gramophone record the ghostly voice of Adolf Hitler once again conjures up the "thousand-year empire". In the summer of 1947 Robert Rossellini made this both unsentimental and disturbing post-war epic at original locations among the mass of rubble in the devastated city of Berlin and dedicated this last part of his trilogy about the war - after Open City
(Roma, citta apert?, 1945) and Paisan
(Paisa, 1946) - to his son Romano, who one year before had died at the age of only six years. Except for the actor Ernst Pittschau, who plays Edmund's father, the co-founder of neo-realism worked exclusively with amateurs, which only increased the immensely authentic effect of the film with the now famous title.
The film focuses on Edmund Koehler, a frail and blond twelve-year-old boy, who is being robbed of his childhood. He tries desperately to cope with this "filthy life" and to keep his family above water by doing odd jobs, making deals on the black market and even stealing. He has to do this because his father is seriously ill and bed-ridden, and his brother Karl-Heinz, who fought for Hitler up to the end, is hiding in their place for fear of reprisals. Only Edmund's sister Eva is earning some extra money in the bars at night, and in the daytime she takes care of the household in the cramped flat, which the Koehlers have to share with four other families. The boy is supposed to sell a gramophone complete with a record containing one of Adolf Hitler's speeches to the Americans for his former teacher Mr Hennig, who is homosexual. The teacher reveals himself to be still living in the past and infiltrates his pupils once again with National Socialist ideas: It is a law of nature that the strong survive and the weak have to die. Edmund translates this into action, pours poison into his father's tea without being noticed and proudly tells his teacher about his supposed heroic deed. Totally isolated by his family and by his peers, the boy wanders aimlessly through Berlin. He observes the funeral of his father from the ruins of a building and hears his sister calling for him. And he sees no other way out than to leap to his death.
The important thing for Rossellini in GERMANY YEAR ZERO
was "an objective and true picture of this huge and almost totally destroyed city", as he says at the beginning in his commentary, because for him the cinema was an important artistic instrument for grasping reality. With this film, which also points to his beginnings as a documentary film-maker, Rossellini succeeded in creating a unique document about the situation in Germany immediately after the war, one that became a highlight of Italian neo-realism. In emphasising the psychological dimension of his characters, however, he began at the same time to distance himself from neo-realism. With the eyes of an outsider, who though had felt the consequences of fascism in his country and on himself, he provides deep insights into the disastrous effects of National Socialism on the collective psyche and in particular on the young soul of Edmund, who remains alone and without any direction. Against the end, which is pessimistic and also breaks taboos, and which reflects the hopelessness and inner destruction of the characters, he sets his message of international understanding that accompanies the pictures at the beginning of the film: "This is not an indictment against the German people and it is also not a defence of them, but rather it is an objective stock-taking of the facts. If however, after having experienced the story of Edmund Koehler, someone should think that something ought to happen, that German children ought to be taught to learn to love life again, then the effort of the person who made this film would have been more than worthwhile."
- Looking at Germany, Goethe Institut, 2000.
Weblink: Introduction to the Looking at Germany season by Ursula Vassen
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