Germany Year Zero (1948)

4 02 2009

Now this is what I look for in a Rossellini film. As my first exposure to his 1940s drama, I found this one a little bit problematic, but for the most part absolutely wonderful. It’s almost as great as Flowers of St. Francis, possibly even better if not for a few minor annoyances. While Rossellini states upfront that his film is intended to be an objective account of modern life in post-war Germany, I can’t help but laugh. Don’t get me wrong, the film is a masterpiece, but objective isn’t the term I think of whenever I hear overly-expressive Hitchcock-esque music in the background. The few problems that show up here all come from an effort in making the story more tragic. Such touches aren’t necessary.

Before I get into the few inconsequential gripes I have with the film, I’d like to point everything it gets right. Formally, Rosselini isn’t exactly a master, but his handheld aesthetic continues to build into something full of energy, almost excitement, which contrasts of course with the bleak subject matter. “Chaotic” would be a very good way to describe the overall vibe of the film. Normally, an abundance of dialogue is not a good thing, but here it actually contributes to establishing the mood. Maybe it’s just because Italian sounds fast, but there always seem to be a sense of urgency, even to the most mundane conversations.

This, at least in my mind, is a great accomplishment on Rossellini’s part. More than anything, this film actually made me think of Elaine May’s unjustly underrated Mikey & Nicky, a film that perfectly fills a certain criteria for a “genre” picture, yet one that is developed so naturally. Nothing in the narrative here feels remotely forced. In fact, it seems to be the exact opposite. There’s these great little non-dramatic touches that Rossellini throws which look like they could take the narrative in a new direction, but instead stand as oddly moving sketches powered by sincerity. A perfect example is when Edmund, the youngest character in the family, walks around his demolished city and joins with a group of children older than him. These kids he spends the day with would almost definitely be introduced through the following scenes, but this is actually their farewell in Rossellini’s world. The moments of happiness that are experienced in this film are fleeting and temporary. In other words, they are completely accurate.

As is the case, it is somewhat inevitable that my only problem comes with the film is the far too tragic conclusion, which is quite tacky, but even more so since it is accompanied by the most loud, obnoxious, manipulative music one is likely to ever hear. I guess if you’re going to make a movie that is essentially just a kid walking around a destroyed city, you’re going to have to use lame music in the background. For the most part, though, this is an amazing achievement. Not to mention, one of the most visceral cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

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