Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero)

Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Roberto Rossellini (with Max Kolpé and Carlo Lizzani)
Stars: Edmund Meschke (Edmund), Ernst Pittschau (Father), Ingetraud Hinz (Eva), Franz Krüger (Karl-Heinz), Erich Gühne (Teacher)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: Italy / France
Germany Year Zero Blu-ray
Germany Year ZeroRoberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero) is a fitting conclusion to his neorealist War Trilogy, which began with the gritty portrait of the Italian Resistance fighting Nazi occupation in Rome Open City (1945) and continued with an epic, fragmented portrait of the Allied liberation of Italy in Paisan (1946). Unlike those films, which take place in the recent past and depict the war itself, Germany Year Zero is a film very much in the present tense that is focused on the aftermath of the war, both physically in terms of the hollow, bombed-out skeleton of Berlin that haunts the film’s images and psychologically in terms of the story’s emotionally torn and desperate characters.

Rossellini chose to tell the story of the aftermath of World War II on the German cultural psyche through a single family, but even more specifically through the eyes of the youngest member of that family, a 12-year-old boy named Edmund (Edmund Meschke), who cannot shake the terrible sense of duty that was instilled in him by the Hitler Youth during his most impressionable years. He lives at home with his ailing, bed-ridden father (Ernst Pittschau), his dutiful older sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinz), and his older brother Karl-Heinz (Franz Krüger), who is hiding from the authorities because he fought for the Third Reich to the bitter end and fears being accused of war crimes (it is never specifically stated what he did during the war, but it is not a stretch to imagine that he was involved in the concentration camps).

Virtually every scene in the film features Edmund—the very face of innocence not just betrayed, but twisted into something horrible. Although he maintains a childlike façade, there is something in his eyes and in his actions that constantly reminds us of not only what he has been through, but how it has forever warped his sensibilities. To punctuate this, there are several scenes in which Edmund is reunited with one of his former teachers (Erich Gühne), a pederast who reminisces about the power he once wielded under Hitler, which is sharply contrasted with Edmund’s dying father, who confesses to his son that he had wished for the fall of the Third Reich. Edmund’s allegiance is clearly with the past, which is why he is so intent on helping Karl-Heinz stay hidden and why he eventually makes a terrifying decision that will end the burden his sick father presents to his already struggling family (there is much discussion of electricity rationing, the need to find work, and a lack of food vouchers).

Germany Year Zero maintains the neorealist tendencies Rossellini evoked in his previous war films, particularly the emphasis on actual physical location. The towering ruins of Berlin’s once magnificent buildings are more than just a constant reminder of the physical ravages of war; they are an ever-present symbol of human violence and misguidance, the ghosts of a culture that sought to impose its will on the rest of the world and lost. In the previous war films Rossellini presented the Nazis and their fascist collaborators as two-dimensional villains; however, by setting the final film of the trilogy in Germany, he unveils a new dimension, presenting the German people in extraordinarily complex terms. Some, like the father, are victims, while others, like the teacher, are frighteningly unrepentant. In the middle are those who are torn, like Karl-Heinz, fearful of being held accountable for their actions, yet still aware of a moral universe.

And, of course, there’s Edmund, who embodies the youth of Germany that was betrayed by their elders and set on a path from which there was no return. The final moments of Germany Year Zero are undeniably harsh, and perhaps they are too melodramatic in presenting the only avenue Edmund can imagine for his future amid the ruins. As with Rome Open City and Paisan, Germany Year Zero ends with a scene of violence that also carries with it an undercurrent of optimism, in this case envisioned in the banality of a streetcar moving through the frame. Even if you don’t entirely buy into these final moments (which I didn’t), they do little to lessen the power and profundity of the film’s overall message about what a world at war does to those caught in the crossfire.

Germany Year Zero Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Roberto Rossellini’s War TrilogyGermany Year Zero is available exclusively as part of the three-disc “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy” box set (SRP $99.95), which also includes Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioGerman Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Video introduction by Roberto Rossellini from 1963
  • Italian release opening credits and voice-over prologue
  • Roberto Rossellini 2001 documentary by Carlo Lizzani
  • “Letters from the Front: Carlo Lizzani on Germany Year Zero” featurette
  • Video interview with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà
  • Video interview with directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
  • “Roberto and Roswitha” illustrated essay by film scholar Thomas Meder
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$99.95 (box set)
    Release DateJuly 11, 2017

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    All three films in Criterion’s “War Trilogy” Blu-ray boxset have been given new, high-definition transfers that improve upon the already impressive DVD boxset they released back in 2010. That release made these important films, which previously were difficult if not impossible to find in anything other than awful condition, widely available to American viewers; Rome Open City and Paisan had been available in Region 1 in less-than-stellar DVD releases from Image, but Germany Year Zero had been MIA on DVD and had never been seen in the U.S. in its original version with German opening titles and a German-language soundtrack. Criterion has stepped up again, with each film getting a new digital restoration from improved sources: Rome Open City in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and a 35mm fine-grain positive preserved at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome; Paisan in 2K from a 35mm fine-grain positive preserved at the Cineteca Nazionale; and Germany Year Zero in high-definition from a 35mm fine-grain positive. The results are simply outstanding; although they still bear the gritty look of neorealism and there are some inconsistencies and flicker, the images are sharper and more detailed than we’ve ever seen, with most of the print damage, dirt, and debris having been digitally removed (some damage simply could not be fixed without doing further harm, but none of it is distracting). Contrast also looks better, with deeper blacks and improved shadow detail. The Blu-ray set also remedies the one complaint about the 2010 DVDs, which is that the films were all pictureboxed. All three soundtracks were mastered in 24-bit from the corresponding optical soundtracks from the 35mm prints (Rome Open City comes from the optical soundtrack negative) and digitally restored. Presented in Linear PCM monaural, they sound quite good, especially given their age and limited technology of the time. Rossellini preferred postsynchronization, rather than recording dialogue live, so the soundtracks (with the exception of Germany Year Zero, which was one of only three films that Rossellini recorded live) sometimes appear a bit awkward in terms of not being perfectly in step with the image.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion’s Blu-ray maintains all of the supplements that originally appeared on their 2010 DVD. They begin with a video introduction by Roberto Rossellini that was recorded for Italian television in 1963 (if you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t watch the introduction first since Rossellini gives away a crucial plot point in the first 30 seconds). Since the version of the film presented here is the original German-language version with German opening credits, Criterion has also separately included the opening credits for the Italian release, which also includes a voice-over prologue that essentially explains Rossellini’s purpose in making the film. Other supplements include the superb 2001 documentary Roberto Rossellini by Carlo Lizzani, who worked as an assistant director on Germany Year Zero and was responsible for shooting some of the film’s most memorable scenes. His documentary traces the entirety of Rossellini’s career using archival footage, clips from most of his films, and interviews with his family members, collaborators, and admirers, including Isabella Rossellini, François Truffaut, and (or course) Martin Scorsese. “Letters From the Front: Carlo Lizzani on Germany Year Zero” is a video record of a podium discussion with Lizzani from the 1987 Tutto Rossellini conference. There are also circa-2010 video interviews with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà about the film and Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who talk about what a powerful influence Rossellini’s work had on their own filmmaking careers. Finally, there is “Roberto and Roswitha,” an illustrated essay by film scholar Thomas Meder that explores Rossellini’s relationship with his mistress Roswitha Schmidt.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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