Germany, Year Zero

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

GERMANY, YEAR ZERO

4/10

Germania, Anno Zero aka Deutschland in Jahrne Null aka Allemange annee zero :
Italy (Ita/W Germany/Fr) 1947 : Roberto ROSSELLINI : 74 mins

Watching Germany, Year Zero on a British cinema screen in spring 2003, it’s hard not to think of another film currently playing in this country’s arthouses: Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever – for this reviewer, a very strong candidate for the title of Worst Film Ever Made. The Rossellini movie’s status as an artistic landmark is, however, assured – it’s long been acclaimed as a key work in the immediate post-war European cinema in general, and of the ‘neo-realist’ movement in particular.

The two films nevertheless share much common ground: both feature a very strong central performance from a child actor who appears in almost every scene – here Edmund Moesche as Edmund, a resourceful 13-year-old living with his family among the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. But both Rossellini and Moodysson conspicuously fail to match the high standards set by their precociously gifted stars, letting them down with crude, melodramatic scripts in which misery is piled so mercilessly upon the characters’ slender shoulders that the results smack uncomfortably of exploitation – all the way up to the aggressively downbeat endings in which Lilya and Edmund meet remarkably similar fates.

For all Moodysson’s many faults, however, we’re clear about why Lilya does what she does – Rossellini, on the other hand, handles his climax so clumsily that Edmund’s motivations (if he actually has any) are left unhelpfully opaque. It’s not hard to forgive Rossellini some moments of clumsiness, however – he was filming among the actual ruins of Berlin, making technical smoothness a virtual impossibility. Even so, there’s no excuse for dolloping Renzo Rossellini’s loudly strident orchestral score all over virtually every significant event – at times the characters’ (German) dialogue is almost drowned out by the manipulative muzak. This approach is all too typical of a director who seems unwilling or unable to resist going overboard whenever possible, ending up with a creaky, often very dated film that seems much longer than its 74 minutes.

Audiences in 1947, the film-makers’ thinking presumably went, would be reluctant to watch a full-length documentary on the status of Berlin – hence this short, lightly fictionalised version of the terrible hardships suffered by the dazed, hungry, poverty-stricken survivors. And whatever the shortcomings of the script, the film is a vital record of the appalling state of what was once, and would be again, Berlin. But didn’t Rossellini and his co-writers (Carlo Lizzani and Max Kolpet) realise that the spirits of their audiences – either in Berlin or elsewhere – would hardly be lifted by what we’d now call a colossal downer of a movie? After watching Edmund’s grim fate unfold, many viewers might be forgiven for giving up the ghost altogether: presumably not what was needed in the post-war environment of rebuilding and renewal. We see no cinemas in Rossellini’s Berlin – and we can’t help wondering if, given the depressing, demoralising message of this particular movie, their absence wasn’t in fact something of a blessing in disguise.

11th May, 2003
(seen same day : Cineside, Newcastle)

by Neil Young