The great French occupation novel, Dirty Snow

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a phenomenon. Between the ages of 21 and 27 (during the years 1924-1931) he churned out around 190 pulp novels under at least 17 pseudonyms. Between then and his retirement 1973, he published at least as many more novels under his own name (and twenty volumes of memoirs after his retirement). Roughly half of the novels bylined Simenon were cases solved by Inspector Maigret of the Paris police. The rest were “psychological novels” (not that Inspector Maigret was anything but a keen deployer of psychological insight into killers’ minds…). Of the non-Maigret novels, Dirty Snow (La Neige était sale, is widely considered Simenon’s masterpiece, twice as long as most of the others, dealing with the very painful subject of disreputable conduct in an occupied country.


Simenon told the story of a 17-year-old boy who was doing just fine during the occupation of his country by a rather Nazi-like power. The location is not specified as being French, and could as easily be Poland under the Nazi yoke, or most any country under brutal occupation. The names of the characters, both occupiers and occupied, are German. According to the jacket of the New York Review reprinting, Hans Koning described Dirty Snow as “one of the very few novels to come out of German-occupied France that gets it exactly right.” Simenon lived through the Nazi occupation and was regarded by some of his countrymen as a collaborator. He decamped to the United States for the decade after the end of the war, and Dirty Snow is date- and time-stamped, “Tucson, Arizona, 20 March 1948.”

(The jacket also asserts: “Dirty Snow, widely acknowledged as one of Simenon’s finest books, is a study of the criminal mind comparable to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. The very noirish, very cinematic novel was filmed, apparently badly. in 1950.)

The story is told somewhat obliquely (though not requiring as much effort to put the boy’s life story together as it takes to put together that of the title character in Simenon’s later anti-narrative Betty), but more or less chronologically. The winter seemed endless, adding to the general feeling of oppressiveness: “There was still the dirty snow, piles of it that looked like they were rotting, stained black, peppered with garbage. The white powder that loosed itself from the sky in small handfuls, like plaster falling from a ceiling, never managed to cover the filth.”

Frank is the spoiled son of Lotte, who runs a small bordello, masquerading as a manicure shop, from her apartment. Frank uses the bodies of the staff when he is so inclined. A high-ranking police officer, who may be Frank’s father, provides protection. The other residents of the apartment building hate Lotte and Frank and the young employees less for the prostitution than they resent them for having more and better food as a result of collaborating with the invaders.

Bored with his privileged but vacuous existence, freed from the struggle to survive that most of his countrymen and -women are engaged in, Frank is in the tradition of the antiheroes of Gide’s Les caves de Vatican and Camus’s L’étranger, performing a gratuitous murder. At the start of the novel, Frank lies in wait for a particularly corpulent and corrupt noncommissioned officer of the occupying army, whom he calls “the Eunuch” because of how he plays with the women he feeds in an off-limits nightclub. After stabbing to death “the Eunuch,” Frank makes sure that one of his neighbors, Holst, sees him and can place him at the scene of the murder. Holst’s daughter Sissy is infatuated with Frank. Soon enough Frank finds a way to outrage her (plot-spoiling details suppressed!).

With the pistol taken from the corpse, Frank goes on to a robbery that further exposes him by putting others in the know about his crimes. The crime echoes that in Crime and Punishment, but Frank feels no guilt, not the slightest remorse. Indeed, he does not seem able to feel anything. He believes that “destiny was lying in ambush somewhere. But where? Instead of waiting for it to appear in its own good time, Frank went out looking for it, poking around everywhere in his search…. He had searched for destiny in every corner and it was in none of the places he’d looked.”

A destiny does find him, one that surprises him, and which some readers understand as redeeming his adolescence of banal attempts at evil. I found the second half of the novel more interesting than the first (though no more twisted), but any discussion of it would constitute plot-spoiling. I can say that it vividly illustrates (14 years before Hannah Arendt coined the phrase) “the banality of evil” in the bureaucratic order of the occupying power that bears considerable resemblance to the Third Reich.

©2005, Stephen O. Murray

Two middling short Dürrenmatt novels

I have a 1985 British paperback titled The Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, though in German he published another in 1985 (The Execution of Justice) and one more in 1986 (The Assignment). I had already read the later ones and four of the five in what was briefly a complete collection of his novels.


Dürrenmatt was fascinated by detective stories, though he called one he wrote “anti-detective stories.” The whydunit, The Execution of Justice, particularly flouts conventions that are somewhat observed in The Judge and the Hangman (his first novel) and The Pledge (his fifth).


In A Dangerous Game (Die Panne, 1956, first issued in the US as Traps), the car (a red Studebaker) of traveling salelsman named Traps breaks down. There is no room in the local inn, and he is taken in by an old man, whom he and the reader soon learn is a retired judge. He, a retired prosecutor, a retired defense attorney, and a retired executioner (from some unspecified country other than Switzerland, which had banned capital punishment) gather for dinners and play a game of resuming their former professional roles—over haute cuisine and a lot of good vintage wine.


Raps maintains that he is innocent, never having committed any crime. Over the course of the repast, however, the prosecutor convinces Traps that he murdered the man who had held the position he now holds. The man had a weak heart, and Traps made sure that he would find out that his wife had been making time with his subordinate.

Not that he died on learning of his wife and subordinate’s liaison, or that Traps could have been convicted of murder in any conventional trial. He is flattered by the prosecutor laying out “the perfect murder” and is swallowed up in the role the prosecutor crafts.


Uniquely in Dürrenmatt’s novels, the previous one, Griece sucht Griechin (which means “A Greek for a Greek,” the title of a couples ad; the 1955 novel was, however, rendered in English as Once a Greek…) contains no murder, though there is a planned assassination of the president of a country a lot like Switzerland.

The novel struck me as a sort of inverted Kafka plot, (and/or foreshadowing Jerzy Kosińsk’s Being There) in which instead of existential guilt, a man is bombarded with good fortune—after Chloe, a woman of Greek ancestry, responds to the “Greek for Greek” ad and agrees to marry the poor assistant-assistant bookkeepr of a huge conglomerate company that manufactures forceps as well as machine guns an atomic cannons (whatever they might be!). Eventually, Archilochos discovers why he is suddenly in good facor and showered with good things. Of course, he freaks out (which leads to agreeing to assassinate the president, who turns out to be quite charming), and very un-Dürrenmattish, there is a happy ending.

I think that the fairy tale is overly long (though running slightly less than a hundred pages). Both these middle-1950s novels are very contrived. In a New York Times review  of Once a Greek, Kurt Vonnegut likened the novel to a carefully and smoothly entineered Swiss clock: “There are no mechanical mysteries or flaws. The intricately twinkling, twitching works can be admired through cases of glass, and they make little dolls act out jerky little scenes of human love and greed and stupidity and murder and politics and hope. The dolls are frankly dolls, doing what the machinery says they must. There is one human soul at which to marvel—the soul of the inventor.”

After labeling the jokes “Jungian” (why, I don’t understand),Vonnegut railed at the idea that a Studebaker could be chic, though red Studebakers feature in both Once a Greek and A Dangerous Game (though admittedly, the one in the latter book breaks down, a prelude to the dangerous game its owner gladly joins. (That things are going to get out of hand is certain: otherwise what would the book be?) I am less interested in the existential guilt of Traps than in his engulfment in the role the prosecutor concocts. And neither seems as good to me as The Pledge, which followed them.

(I’ve also written about Dürrenmatt’s novel The Quarry in addition to the three novels mentioned (with links) in the second paragraph above and his play Romulus the Great.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Rossellini’s fifth end-of-WWII film

Roberto Rossellini (1906-77) jolted international audiences with three films — “Rome, the Open City” (1945), “Paisa[/n]” (1946) and “Germany, Year Zero” (1948) — that came to be called “neorealist” and at least according to the Criterion Collection as the “War Trilogy.” They focused, respectively, on the end of the Nazi occupation of Rome, the US fighting from Sicily north to the Po River, and hard-scrabble life in bombed-out Berlin for a young boy.

Rossellini returned to the last days (weeks?) of the Nazi occupation of Rome in “Era notte a Roma” (which means “It Was Night in Rome,” though the English-language release title was “Escape by Night,” 1960; the DVD reverts to the Italian title), following upon another great film set during the Nazi occupation, “Il generale Della Rovere” (1959), a Pirandellean drama about rolue engulfment in which fellow neorealist pioneer Vittorio de Sica delivered his greatest onscreen performance.

I’d estimate that half of “Era notte a Roma” was in English, with some of the rest in Russian. These were not subtitled for the Italian release, so that audiences were in the same situation as the Roman characters harboring a British army captain, an American Air Force lieutenant, and a Russian army sergeant who had escaped a prisoner-of-war camp when Italy surrendered (and before the northern two-thirds of the peninsula came under Nazi domination).

The opening narration (in what sounds like American rather than British English, though the point-of-view of the movie is that of the British captain, played by Leo Genn) attributes the sheltering of enemies of the Reich to “Christian charity” more than any political feelings — thus not directly participating in the erasure of fascism in revising history to make Italy a victim of the Nazis rather than a co-aggressor when things were going well for the Wermacht. I think that the movie whitewashes the complicity of the Holy Mother Church in particular, and of fair-weather fascists in general, but there is at least one still-ardent fascist in the movie, albeit a limping failed priest, Tarcisio (George Petrarca).

At the start, after the invocation of “Christian charity,” nuns are scrounging food somewhere north of Rome. A farmer gives them foodstuffs for practically nothing so long as they take the escaped prisoners, who have been hiding in an Etruscan tomb, with them. Back in the Eternal City (Roma, perpetual), Esperia Belli (the vivacious Giovanna Ralli) removes her habit and lets down her luxuriant long hair, and it becomes clear to the viewers (including the three prisoners) that she has been masquerading as a nun.

Esperia is an active participant in the black market and reluctant to add harboring enemy (of Germany) prisoners to her already risky existence. But she does, and her fiancé, Renato Balducci (Renato Salvatori in the same year as his scoundrel performance in Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers) is very enthusiastic about a Soviet comrade (how many Soviet prisoners were there in Italy? Not to get into how these three bonded with only two sharing any common language…)

I think Leo Genn (born in 1905 and a real-life WWII officer two decades earlier than when the movie was shot) was too old for the part of Major Pemberton. Also, throughout the movie, he speaks very, very slowly (perhaps helpful for those with marginal English comprehension in the Italian audience?).

I doubted that the actor playing the wounded American bomber pilot was really American, but Peter Bradley (the name of the actor and of his character) was born in Winnetka, Illinois, and eventually said something that convinced me (I don’t recall what it was, though).

The original American release was trimmed down to 82 minutes from the Italian 151. The DVD I saw ran 138 minutes. It seemed overly long with some shots held unnecessarily long. I later learned that Rossellini was enamored with a new zooming capability and delighted not to have to cut as often as previous technology had made necessary.

Despite the protracted length of some shots, the movie is not bad as a thriller, and despite the sentimentality of a Christmas dinner in the attic of Esperia’s apartment, the dangers are not sugarcoated. I find Major Pemberton a bit wimpy, not least in comparison to his alien mates.

The DVD subtitles everything in all three languages, which is just fine with me. It contains no bonus features, but I have three books on Rossellini, and am going to look at the bonus features on the Criterion “War Trilogy” release. Though I consider “Era notte a Roma” (also released in the UK as “Blackout in Rome”) the least of the five Rossellini WWII movies I have seen, not as close to the time of the events portrayed as in the “War Trilogy,” and not among the best of the thousands and thousands of WWII movies, it was fairly absorbing and suspenseful.

©2014, Stephen O. Murray


Rossellini’s “Vanina Vanini”

Roberto Rossellin seized and to some degree made the neor-realist zeitgeist at the end of the Second World War with “Roma città aperta” (Rome, the Open City, 1945), though it was completely scripted, shot mostly in a studio, and starring major Italian movie stars of the day (Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani). The neorealist use of nonactors in real locations burst out in “Paisa” (1946), which was to some degree a historical movie, but with the history being very recent. Similarly, “Germany, Year Zero,” shot in the rubble of Berlin was very recent history, if history at all. Between the latter two movies of what is now seen as “the war trilogy,” Rossellini shot Magnani in a version of Jean Cocteau’s one-character (on a phone) play. “La voix humaine” (The Human Voice), which was not neorealist by any stretch of the term.

Then Ingrid Bergman (who would make another version of “The Human Voice,” in English in 1966) came into his life. Rossellini impregnated the actress, who was married to another man (one of the twins she bore was Isabella Rossellini, future movie star if not of the wattage of her mother), and there was a huge international scandal with Bergman being denounced on the floor of the US Senate. The movies they made together (Stromboli, Europa ’51, Journey to Italy, Fear, 1950-54) were neither commercial nor critical successes at the time though they have come to be regarded much more highly (despite a certain sadism directed at the character of the international star who had come to him).

I have not seen the three immediately post-Bergman Rossellini movies, but hold “Il Generale della Rovere” (1959, with a great performance by fellow neorealist director Vittorio De Sica) in high regard. It and Rossellini’s next film, “Era notte a Roma” (“Escape by Night” in English-language release) returned to the end-of-WWII era of Rossellini’s first masterpieces.


They were followed by a turn to 19th-century Italy with two 1961 films, the tableaux of “Viva l’Italia!” (Garibaldi in English) and adaptation of Stendahl’s 1829 novella “Vanina Vanini,” which I would say is a bad movie and not one with much claim to being interesting cinema (except for the scenes of forging and flinging chains). Like “Garibaldi,” it t has some scenes with many extras, but, unlike “Garibaldi, thesescenes that are superfluous to the story, a story that is very badly told, dropping its most interesting characters. It is also devoid of the wit and charm of Stendahl’s voice.

At the outset Contessa Vitelleschi (Martine Carol) [Ophuls’s Lola Montès) vouches to the (Papal States) police for a fellow passenger in a stagecoach into Rome, Pietro Missirilli (the tall, slender, never-smiling Lauret Terzieff), who turns out to have come to Rome to kill an informer from the Masonic organization seeking Italian independence (from domination by the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic majesties of Austria north of the Papal Sates and of Spain south of them).

The killing is very awkwardly shot. Pietro takes refuge in the palace of the countess, and to ensure she is not implicated in a scandal, the prince whose mistress she is, Asdrubale Vanini (Paolo Stoppa) whisks the wounded Mason (in drag) to the attic of his own Roman palace, where his overripe daughter Vanina (the 28-year-old, talentless Sandro Milo, who was the mistress of the film’s producer, Moris Ergas; Stendahl’s title character was 19) is smitten by him.


Milo and Terzieff have zero chemistry, and their passion is completely unbelievable. She certainly does not know him at all, and to monopolize him (back in Forli, in Romagna where there is a Vanina palace and where Pietro is part of the Masonic conspiracy, though he seems more a late-19th-century Russian nihilist than a champion of independence before the Risorgimento) ensures that he will be permanently separated from her. (The heroine telling all to the enemy recurred from “Era notte.”)

In addition to the countess who disappears (reportedly she had scenes that were shot and excised by the producer in favor of Milo; Ergas reputedly destroyed the negatives of the first three reels of Rossellini’s rough cut and Rossellini was completely absent from the editing of the movie), the other interesting character who simply disappears (after being kidnapped by the revolutionaries) is Vanina’s new confessor (Leonardo Botta, who manages to look like he his smoldering for her more than Terzieff managed to do).

For differing reasons, both Rossellini and the screenwriters disavowed the movie, which also did not have a US release for more than a decade. The screenwriters were appalled by the currying favor with the Church in general (they must have missed the very positive portrayal of churchmen in “Era Notte”!) and the ending Rossellini tacked on in particular; Rossellini with the cuts made by the producer.

In his book on Rossellini, José Luis Guarner claims that Rossellini did “not set out only to record a love story but to disclose the precise social and political factors that dominated the characters, whose destiny is connected with that of Italy”— to which I Say “Pshaw!)

Most of the movie was shot in studio sets that look very fake, and the genial behavior of the cardinals (other than the verbosity of the family’s man in the College of Cardinals, Savelli [Nerio Bernardi]) seems false to me.

I also see the movie as well along the path to the deadly boring and talky later tv movies about major thinkers (Pascal, Socrates, Augustine, Descartes) that are politely described as “anti-narratives.” (Once upon a time, I was more positive about the 1966 “Rise to Power of Louis XIV,” which was made for French television, but have not seen it in decades.)

©2014, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


Roberto Rossellini in late-1950s India

I think that Roberto Rossellini made some great films early (Open City, Paisa, Germany Year Zero), some interesting expressionist ones with Ingrid Bergman, and, later in life, some horrendously boring historical biopics (Socrates, Blaise Pascal, and Cartesius, for instance). I was underwhelmed by the four stories and documentary footage he shot in India in 1956, released in 1959 as “India: Matri Bhumi [Mother India].” Though the film has been restored, the colors are quite dull. The dialogue in South Asian languages is not translated. I don’t see the need to read subtitles for Italian voiceovers rather than dubbing them in English.


What I liked best was watching the elephants in the first story, shot in Karapur (after footage of Mumbai, then Bombay, with sententious narration about how tolerant Indians are—less than a decade after the very bloody partition and ethnic cleansing. The narration also rushes over the caste system and ignores altogether starvation.)


In the second part, Nakul, a portly Hindu engineer relocated from what is not Bangladesh (and was then East Pakistan) to work on the construction of the Hirakud dam is about to move on to some other location/project, to the dismay of his wife. First, though he takes a ritual bath in the small and sacred lake that was already there before the reservoir started to fill, and passes a cremation pyre.

Modernization recurs in disruptive form in the preposterous third part in which an old man (who has turned over rice-farming to his two sons) and his two cows coexist with a tiger, whose prey flee trucks and incipient iron mining. The tiger takes on (offscreen) a porcupine and wounded tigers are notorious man-eaters.

The final story stars a monkey trained to entertain (and collect money) whose master seemingly dies of a heatstroke walking between towns. The vultures close in, but do not start pecking the man. The monkey is imperiled by wild monkeys and ends up in a circus. After the very leisurely pace of the monkey episode, and, indeed, the whole movie, it suddenly ends, following a return to the swarming city (Mumbai).

The young woman who catches the eye of the elephant driver (mahoud) in the first episode is a musician in a puppet troupe, the productions of which are pretty awful. There is footage without a story of Benares and the Ganges in the middle. The movie is neorealist in not employing any professional actors, otherwise crypto-documentary (staged vignettes)…. And mostly dull when not focusing on animals (and even then, very stock footage of tigers).

Rossellini credited himself for the screenplay. It was one of his favorites, but perhaps that owes more to the production assistant in India who became his paramour whom he took back with him to Italy, igniting another scandal (not as big a one as the one involving Ingrid Bergman to whom he was still nominally married).

Pros: elephants and monkey

Cons: Italian voiceover narration, slow pace

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Neorealist commedia d’arte?

I didn’t think that Roberto Rossellini’s one comedy “La macchina ammazzacattivi” (The machine [camera] that kills bad people), shot in 1948, i.e., between “Germany, Year Zero” and the arrival of Ingrid Bergman and “Stromboli,” but not released until 1952, was very funny. The Americans looking for a place to stay that has reliable indoor plumbing becomes tiresome quickly, as does the ogling of Marilyn Buferd (the 1946 Miss America, used here as a sort of proto-Anita Ekberg of Fellini’s later “La Dolce Vita,” a busty alien to excite the men and not called upon to act).


As the photographer Celestino Esposito who is provided by the local patron saint, Sant’Andrea, a method (photographing a photograph) to freeze (fatally) people in the position they were in in a photograph, Gennaro Pisano is reasonably ambivalent as he attempts to right wrongs in an Amalfi coast village. (He was the local coffin-maker, and Sant’Andrea an octogenarian local drunkard, Giovanni Amato.)

Those who offend the empowered photographer invariably overact. Greed is rampant, though the village and villagers have been poor until new blessings accompany mysterious sudden deaths. There’s also a very stupid Romeo and Juliet of a certain age.


Apparently, Rossellini was distracted (and strung out on cocaine) during the spasmodic shooting. He did not complete the black comedy that was released in a cut made by others. It has an artificial end to match the artificial opening and Rossellini probably wanted to say something about film-makers playing God, but couldn’t decide what he wanted to say, or realized that the comic low-tech magic was not adequate to the task.

The explicit moral is announced: “Don’t be too quick to judge and think about it three times before punishing [someone].”

Pros: look at late-1940s Italian coastal village

Cons: not very funny a comedy

(There is no region-1 DVD currently available. Indeed, the movie was thought to be lost for decades.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

The first Rossellini-Bergman vehicle: “Stromboli”

The first Roberto Rosselini film with Ingrid Bergman is primal drama, though the film was overshadowed by the huge international scandal of their offscreen romance. It is hard to comprehend that the liaison between an actress and a director, each married to others, could lead to the feverish denunciations in the US Congressional Record and American press that were aimed at Bergman. I wasn’t alive at the time, but have read about it.

I come here to praise the actress and the film, and will get around to doing so, and not wallow in the scandal swirling around it during the late 1940s indefinitely, but something of the context in which the film came into existence is important for understanding a film in which veneer of civilization is stripped down to primal forces (the ones here are fire, water, woman, and God).


In 1948 Bergman was one of the most famous and honored film actresses in the world (after Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, Notorious, The Bells of St. Mary, and Saint Joan) saw Rossellini’s “Paisan.” Having admired his earlier “The Open City,” she saw what she regarded as “another great movie” in a nearly empty house. In a letter expressing her admiration, she wrote Rossellini that “if you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well…and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.”

Italy had been cut off from American movies during the war, and Rossellini had no interest in Hollywood products. He did not know who Bergman was. When her fame was explained to him, he realized that her name could raise the money for any film project he could imagine. Howard Hughes — wanting to woo Bergman himself – -agreed to finance the film.

Rossellini and Bergman began an affair, and she was soon pregnant. In the film Bergman places Karin, a stateless woman who says she is from Lithuania but whose papers are not sufficient to gain entry to Argentine. To get out of the refugee camp, she agrees to marry Antonio (Mario Vitale), a demobilized soldier who kisses her through barbed wire and tells her that he lives on a beautiful island.


She badly wants to get out of the refugee camp and looks on Antonio as her only available ticket. What’s love got to do with it? For her, nothing. For him, well, she’s very beautiful, and he does not think much further about their compatibility. Not to mention that they hardly know each other.

Off they go. The island is beautiful—for those who like volcanoes jutting out of the ocean. There is practically no soil on the island and the volcano is very active. Before the war Antonio had his own fishing boat, but now he must work on someone else’s. His rewards are few and do not include a wife fitting into wearing black, covering her hair, taking orders, and doing things they way generations of Sicilian women have.

The few villagers who have not fled to the Italian mainland or to America treat her as an object — an object of desire for the men, an object of scorn for the women as immodest. Constantly watched, rarely spoken to, Karin is desperate to leave. Husband-wife conflicts are shown perfunctorily. The attitudes of the village women and of the village men are also registered economically.

There is also a rain of boulders from the volcano. There is some fascinating footage of the long rowboats fishing, and hitting the jackpot of a run of tuna (half a century ago, the Mediterranean was not fished out, as it now is). And there is the night in which the whole village is crammed onto boats as part of the town is destroyed by a volcanic eruption. There’s much that looks like a documentary. (Rossellini made films about Socrates and the young Louis XIV that seem like documentaries, so showing the life of a fishing village on a volcanic Italian island could be considered a minor feat for him.) Along with Visconti’s “La terra tremenda,” “Stromboli” is where one looks to see what the rugged life of Sicilian fisherman was like.

A paragraph ago, I left Karin desperate to get out. I failed to mention that she’s three-months pregnant. She tries to seduce the priest (Renzo Cesana in a subtle performance) into giving her the money to finance her escape. She flirts with the lighthouse keeper, and with money from him sets off for the other side of the island. The route goes practically to the rim of the crater. As I’ve said, this is a very <b>active</b> volcano. The trek is horrible, even for someone as robust as Bergman. Trying to walk up ash dunes is bad enough, but clouds of ash are even worse. It is vivid! She suffers. She abandons her possessions. She despairs. She chokes. She collapses.

Before she set out on this suicidal escape route, I was amused by her brushing her hair. To make a good impression on the volcano? But it pays off! When the morning sun wakens her, the only possible word to describe her is “radiant.” I must have been watching too many movies with “stars” like Nicole Kidman, Gwynneth Paltrow, Laura Linney, and other mere mortals. Though these contemporary actresses do many admirable things, Ms. Bergman was a force of nature, a worthy opponent for a volcano. Indeed, it is obvious that all Rossellini needed was Bergman and the volcano. Both Bergman and the volcano show many different faces during the film’s last fifteen minutes. The music during the ash storm is overwrought, and some of what Bergman does could be described as “hysterical,” but she also does resignation, determination, and transcendence.


Karin attains grace through the vehicle of Ingrid Bergman (more convincingly, than Bergman’s Joan of Arc did—this is like Falconetti’s Joan in the flames at the end of Dreyer’s masterpiece). I don’t know what she is going to do with it, or whether she will keep it, or whether it is fleeting, but I have no doubt that what the viewer sees is the attainment of grace. That is more than enough for any movie to do. The fish out of water Bergman-Sicilian fishermen movie is good, but the Bergman and the volcano movie is great. And, eventually, the volcano, too is superfluous. Bergman’s face is, finally, all that is necessary!

I once saw the 81-minute American release with incredibly fatuous narration. It is no wonder that it was a failure. The original Italian version is 108 minutes and is a great and beautiful film though it is certainly not a pleasant film.


©2001, Stephen O. Murray

Desperation in bombed-out Berlin

“Germania, anno zero” (Germay, Year Zero”) was the third film of Roberto Rossellini’s ending of World War II trilogy. “Roma, città aperta,” filmed as the Nazis were retreating from Rome and released as “The Open City” was an international sensation. If Rossellini did not invent Italian neo-realism with that legendary film, he was the first Italian director noticed in the English-speaking world. “Paisà,” the second film of the trilogy, is episodic, like “The Open City,” with segments from six Italian locales, moving north with the Allied invaders/liberators. Rossellini shot the third film in Berlin within a year of Hitler’s death using non-actors. Rossellini found Edmund Moeschke, the twelve-year old who is in almost every scene, in a traveling circus in which his parents performed.


The film opens with a prolonged tracking shot of bombed buildings. Except for short reaction shot, the camera continues to move through the 75 minutes of this grim masterpiece. From surveying the rubble, the camera moves in to watch workers, almost all of them women with headscarves, digging graves. A supervisor chastises them for not digging regulation-sized holes and then notices a blond boy and asks to see his papers. The boy, who could have been a poster child for a Hitler Youth poster, claims to have left his work permit at home. One of the women informs the supervisor that Edmund was a classmate of her son and is only twelve.

She also berates him for taking food from the mouths of the families of the legitimate workers. The viewer soon realizes how bitterly ironic this is, because Edmund’s scavenging work, coal, etc. is the sole support of his family of four, which includes an invalid father, an adult brother who is afraid to register for work because he fought for the Reich until the end, and a sister who goes to night clubs to scrounge cigarettes from soldiers of the occupying armies. (I thought the brother must have been in the S. S., but was in the Wermacht; I am not sure whether “taxi-hall dancer” was supposed to be understood as “prostitute,” as for instance in Donna Reed’s character in “From Here to Eternity” made six years later.)

Of the four or five families crammed into an apartment that survived the bombing, the Koeler’s are the most vulnerable and the one most despised by the apartment’s owner. Out on the street, Edmund has a tough time. He is cheated by strangers and by ostensible friends.

He runs into an extremely creepy former teacher, Herr Enning, who behaves inappropriately with Edmund and is, I think, supposed to be understood as a pedophile. (This is less than clear both because of the censorship of the time and because there was no opportunity for Edmund to be a child in the desperate straits his family was sinking in. When he tries to join some children playing soccer in the street, they reject him.)

Herr Enning, who is a unreconstructed Nazi, wants Edmund to sell a phonograph recording of Hitler as a souvenir to conquering troops. To do this, Edmund plays the record in the ruins of the chancellery (Hitler was first elected chancellor). The familiar voice echoing through the ruins gives a German man walking by quite a start before the transaction is concluded.


Major Plot Spoilers

Edmund confides in his former teacher some of his anguish about his father. Herr Enning repeats the Social Darwinist position that only the strong deserve to survive and the weak must be eliminated. After Edmund’s father moans that it would be better for everyone including himself if he died, but that he does not have the courage to kill himself, Edmund undertakes eugenic correction and poisons his father’s tea. When he tells Herr Enning that he has applied eugenic policy, Herr Enning denies having recommended such action and calls Edmund a monster.

The camera continues to follow Edmund through the rubble-lined streets, past a bombed-out church in which a priest is playing Bach on the organ, and up to where he can see his father’s corpse being removed. He removes his coat and jumps to his own death. Cinematographer Robert Julliard films Edmund as another piece of rubble.


Though short, this is a very intense film. Before the Nazi defeat, Edmund was a Hitler Youth and to a considerable degree continued to be one as an increasingly feral child. Not even Bach and the Holy Mother Church can save him. A message at the beginning implores compassion for children like Edmund, but the script (by a group of writers including Rossellini, but, unlike the preceding two films, not Federico Fellini) and the way it is filmed provide none.

Julliard frequently shot from above the characters in what I think was intended to be “eye of God” documentary perspective. Although 1940s audiences may have accepted Rossellini’s trilogy as near documentary, much in them seems very operatic to me. The music (by Renzo Rossellini) is all instrumental, but is often overwrought. Taking Hitler’s voice back to the chancellery is about as staged as anything I can imagine, and the finale is the same as that in the most famous verismo opera.

There is practically no dialogue in the last 10-15 minutes of the film, and in various shots of Edmund walking around, but the indoor scenes have torrents of dialogue. It must have been dubbed into rapid-fire Italian, because the cast members all have German names, and because all Italian film of the time were dubbed rather than being filmed with sound, but I was too occupied trying to keep up with the subtitles to try to check matches of sounds and lip movements.

At the time, Rossellini was criticized for portraying Nazi survivors in ways that provoked sympathy or pity for them and neglecting to point out that they brought destruction on themselves. Edmund is simultaneously a monster and a victim of disasters brought down on him by adults. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that he or his father (whom we learn tried to keep him from being enrolled by his school as a Hitler Youth) got off easily. (I would be ready to argue that Herr Ebbing did, however.) Like the slum child (decades later) “Pixote,” Edmund Koeler seems to succeed at doing whatever it takes to survive, so it is hard to judge him by standards of more humane civilizations, and seeing children denied childhood continues to be a very troubling phenomenon today. Although Berlin has been rebuilt, there are many places in which children are scrambling to survive the aftermath of political/military disasters, so that Edmund’s dilemmas continue to face others.

©2002, Stephen O. Murray

Rossellini’s St. Francis (& Co.)

“Francesco, Giullare di Dio,” which means Francis, the fool or the jester of God, has been known in English by the title of the collection of utterances of St. Francis of Assisi, “The Little Flowers (I fioretti) of Saint Francis.” The episodic (one might say “anti-dramatic”) 1950 movie—directed by Roberto Rossellini, written by Federico Fellini and Rossellini—is actually more based on The Life of Father Ginapro than on The Little Flowers. There are only three (of the total of ten) episodes that are drawn from The Little Flowers.


Brother Ginapro, played by Brother Severino Pisacane, was a simple (verging on “simple-minded”) follower of Francis within the original band (on the plain below the Umbrian hill-town of Assisi). Brother Ginapro is the focus of the three of the most memorable sequences from the film (explaining how he was returning again without his tunic, cooking all the food at once, and going off to preach to invaders), plus the wince-inducing “How Brother Ginapro Cut Off the Leg of a Pig for a Sick Brother”).

Rather than the story of the life of St. Francis (as in Franco Zeffirelli’s gorgeous, big-budget color-film reconstruction of the era in the 1972 “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”), Rossellini et al. made the film about the collective. There is a wordless scene of Francis overcoming his antipathy to embrace a leper and one of him talking to (more than preaching at) birds, but most often he is shown subordinating his wit and will (and ego) to the lowest common denominator, level of the masses—not just his band of followers, but those they encounter outside their cramped living quarters and more imposing chapel.


Francis (a charismatic Brother Nazario Gerardi) and his followers were played by actual Franciscan monks (novices) of the Nocera Inferiore Monastery near Maiori. Fellini had found them immediately after World War II. He and Rossellini persuaded them to play on-screen monks in a quietest interlude of Rossellini’s episodic (but very dramatic in its other segments) 1946 film Paisá. The one professional actor involved, Aldo Fabrizi, hammed it up as the oversize tyrant Nicolaio, first in ludicrous armor hiding his face, then making faces in heavy makeup at Brother Ginapro. (The grotesque humor of this and the other Ginapro sequences is very unlike anything else in the body of Rossellini’s work, though his daughter Isabella claims he was very funny in real life. Genaro’s (mis)adventures foreshadows sequences of surrealistic humor in several Fellini movies, and these scenes must have been written primarily by Fellini.)

Although made during the tumult of European rebuilding after the Second World War, shorn of the opening historical contextualization that originally opened the movie (some of the footage is included as an extra on the Criterion DVD), there is a timeless quality to the movie. The fervent band of brothers have cassocks (and tonsures) and are shown out in the countryside. Since the movie only covers a few years of the life of Francis and his disciples, there is no need for the costumes and decor of his earlier life as the son of a rich merchant or of his visit to the pope (phases that Zeffirelli shot in San Gimignano and Monreale, respectively). The brothers are out in the rain or out in the country or in the two modest edifices they build. When Brother Ginapro goes to preach to the barbarian invaders, they look like Vikings. The tyrant has a tent, but that and the stairway of one medieval house are the only interiors other than the two huts and chapel of the proto-order of Franciscans on the plain below Assisi. The town of Assisi is never shown. (Obviously, the great basilica in which Francis is entombed was not built until after the stories that are illustrated in the movie, an Little Flowers was written after his death.)

The final sequence is a particular marvel. Francis disbands the monastery, sending the brothers out into the world to preach. They ask him where they should go. He has them spin until they are dizzy and then to go in the direction they face when they fall. There is a lengthy medium shot of Franciscan whirling dervishes. All but the old man, Giovanni, fall. He cannot turn fast enough to get dizzy. There are closeups of Francis patiently watching, and Giovanni slowly spinning. The real-life beggar who played the part did not remember what he was supposed to say (the name of a town, like what the others had said) and said he would “go in the directions those birds are flying.” Rossellini realized that this was a far better (more Franciscan) answer than the one Giovanni was supposed to provide. The men disperse, singing. As they disappear off the edge of the frame or become smaller and smaller on the screen as they move off, the chorus (singing a “Te Deum Laudamus”) swells on the soundtrack.

Rossellini (et al.) never mocks the simple(-minded) children of God who gather around Francis nor condescends to the joys of self-mortification of Francis and his merry men. There is no psychology, no political, economic, or psychological analysis. Rossellini had real Franciscans show something of the origins of their order and documented it without fancy camerawork. Though the camera is not static, it mostly stays at eye level. The cinematography of Otello Martelli is unobtrusive, but generally beautiful. Insofar as it is possible to show hope in a shattered world (an earlier one than the bombed-out one shown in Paisá and, even more so, in Germany, Year Zero (1947)), Martelli and the Franciscans did so.

The movie was released for the Christmas season of the Jubilee Year of 1950 and was a resounding commercial failure (grossing $13,000 in its Italian release). Even more than Umberto D, which also lost money for producer/publisher Angelo Rizzoli, its recognition came from outside Italy and more slowly. (It was championed by André Bazin, whose essay is included in the Criterion DVD booklet. Truffaut and Pasolini were outspoken in their admiration of the movie—and Pasolini’s own “The Testament According to St. Matthew” was clearly influenced by the look of the band of Franciscan brothers in Rossellini’s movie. American advocate of auteur theory, Andrew Sarris, placed “Little Flowers” in the #8 slot in his listing of the best movies of all times. On its initial release—at a time that Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman were being denounced in the US Senate—the leftist critics were appalled at the lack of social realism (mandated by Stalinist culture policy) and collusion with Catholic mystification, while some Catholic critics were upset that the saint was shown as human (shorn of his halo) and leading a band of half-wits and suspected that Rossellini was trying to ingratiate himself with the Church after the condemnation of many of his earlier movies, “The Miracle” in particular, by cardinals and by the US Catholic Legion of Decency.)

The restored print and sound are clear (this is a Criterion release, and they do things right there! The images are even sharper than on the Eureka PAL edition available in Europe). There are two very insightful analyses of the movie and its place in Rossellini’s body of work. The first (in English) comes from his daughter, Isabella Rossellini, who also adds some personal memories of her father and discusses her father’s relationship with Fellini and how their very different sensibilities worked perfectly together for this project. The second analysis (in Italian) comes from film historian Adriano Apra, who has interesting things to say about the movie’s place in Rossellini’s life and work. The extra drawing most heavily on “what Rossellini told me and what I think were his real feelings about religion” comes not form his daughter but from a Jesuit priest and film critic, Father Virgilio Fantuzzi. The disc also includes some of the preface to the movie, which laid out the 13th-century context in voice-over of paintings by Giotto and his followers. A longer preface was part of the film’s première at the Venice Film Festival, but was lost. (Apra reports that an eleventh vignette, involving Francis and a prostitute, was shot and edited, but excised before the Venice Film Festival showing. All that seems to remain of it is a still.) There is also a 32-page booklet that I have not seen.

The two movies starring Ingrid Bergman that Rossellini shot before and after “Little Flowers,” Stromboli (1949) and “Europa ’51” (1951, obviously) show modern women attempting to simplify their life. Bergman’s character in “Stromboli” has a spiritual epiphany on the slope of an active volcano (on an island west of Sicily). Her character in “Europa ’51” attempts to devote herself to those in need, but her family has her committed to a mental institution for her efforts, which must be Rossellini’s view of what would happen to a 20th-century St. Francis. The failure of grace in the ruins of Europe after World War II was also the subject of Rossellini’s “Germany, Year Zero”. Rossellini’s later movies were, like “Little Flowers,” focused on figures in history contributing to changes in consciousness (Francis was central to a revival of “primitive Christianity” that was accepted by Pope Innocent III).

©2005, Stephen O. Murray

Zeffirelli’s Saint Francis

Franco Zeffirelli just died at the age of 95. I’m posting the two reviews of his films that once were on epinions. I saw “Taming of the Shrew” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at a post-prom midnight screening, and the real Zeffirelli knockout (of his non-opera films), “Romeo and Juliet” in suburban Detroit as a college freshman.

Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) has become a cult film for some left-over flower children and for some admirers of St. Francis of Assisi. No one would argue about the beauty of the cinematography, both interiors and exteriors, but other aspects are more open to question and criticism.


I first saw the film (in English with Spanish subtitles) in southern Mexico during the mid-1970s. I thought it was beautiful to look at (the cinematpography was by Ennio Guarnieri, who had shot Maria Callas as Medea for Pasolini), but very slow. I thought that the actor playing St. Francis (his name was Graham Faulkner, though he certainly looked Italian) was almost as vapid as Donovan’s soundtrack (which is very thin stuff). The wait for Alec Guiness’s pope to appear seemed very long

Seeing it a quarter of a century later [2005] on video, I liked it better. It still seems slow, though I was impressed that the convalescent Francesco speaks not a word until shouting “No!” 36 minutes into the film. I was also impressed that the ending of the film also involves a parallel long wait for the film’s one bona fide star to speak.

I still think that the middle drags and that the whole approach is suspiciously pandering to the youth culture of the late 1960s (the film was shot in 1970 and by the time of its premiere in 1972its simple flower power view already seemed dated). Like Z’s “Romeo and Juliet” the leads are beautiful young unknowns, misunderstood young flower children who want to bliss out in communal living. (Also like them and the English-speaking fresh new faces that Fellini found for “Satyricon” and Antonioni found for “Zabriskie Point” and Zeffirelli’s later “Jesus of Nazareth” they disappeared quickly, in Faulkner’s case immediately after this film in which he is in every scene, often in very tight close-up. One wonders if casting Al Pacino and Isabella Rosselini, both then unknown, would have ended their careers at the beginnings!)


Having in the interim visited Assisi, the ruined church that the band rebuilds in the valley looks very authentic and the one in Assisi looks like (and perhaps is) the one now attached to Santa Clara’s convent.

I don’t know about the snow and the badlands they cross en route to Rome, but the countryside looks Umbrian, which is to say gorgeous. The film was shot partly in Assisi, partly in San Gimignano and Gubbio, some in studios in Rome, The papal court was filmed in the Sicilian eleventh-century cathedral of Monreale with its ornate Byzantine interior. (The movie made me want to go to Monreale, which I eventually was able to do—and was not disappointed).

The costumes and cinematography are voluptuous, even if the most memorable scene is Francis stripping off his fine clothes and giving them back to his father before going naked out the city gates. Faulkner definitely had a great ass! — in addition to his very soulful eyes. I’m sure that Zeffirellli derived pleasure from looking at him —naked or not.

Francis rising from what everyone thought was his deathbed, to catch and kiss a house sparrow, balancing perilously along the ridge of the very high roof of his father’s house and the fields of poppies are especially memorable scenes, as is the pomp of the papal audience (providing maximal contrast to the ragged band of Franciscans come to submit and seek guidance from the head of the universal church.

The scenario’s historical accuracy is particularly misleading in regard to Bishop Guido burning the church and (Saint) Clare living with the brothers in Christ. And in literally fabulous costume design for the princes of the Church: the politicians in the Vatican (and Bishop Guido back in Assisi) are truly Babylonian in their pomp and splendor and indifference to the humble carriers of the True Faith (when the Franciscans come to see and submit to Pope Innocent III, as for the Jews in their Babylonian captivity).

In his memoirs, Zeffirelli recalls that “one British writer after another produced a script—we must have had twenty in all. . . . The problem was that they kept seeing Francis in Protestant terms. To them he was a pre-Lutheran revolutionary overthrowing the authority of the Pople, whereas the opposite was the case.” It seems to me that the script that Zeffirelli, Lina Wertmuller and Suco Cecci d’Amico (the last scripted a number of the later Visconti films) produced retains more rebellion at the theocratic medieval society than subservience to “the establishment” — which was represented in a very 1960s way.

From Zeffirelli’s memoirs, I also learned that before Donovan, Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen had attempted to collaborate on music for the film. Trying to imagine the music they might have produced boggles my mind. Listening to the music Donovan did produce could easily put me to sleep. I am astounded to learn that there are people who adore the film’s music. I suppose it is easier to love the movie if one does, but I continue to think that there is more sustenance in a single honeysuckle blossom than in Donovan’s score (and it not that I loathe Donovan, either; indeed, “Try and catch the wind” is one of my favorite 1960s songs).


©2005, Stephen O. Murray