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.

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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.

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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.

Evaluations

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

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