Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Germany, Year Zero
Roberto Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero (1948) opens and ends with shots of a devastated post WWII Berlin, its buildings reduced to empty shells and rubble. Its inhabitants, we soon find out, aren't doing much better. We follow the Kohler family as they struggle to support themselves; the father is dying, the daughter does what she can to help him out, the elder son won't leave the house for fear of being imprisoned for his role in the war, and the younger son (Edmund, age 12) gets involved in all sorts of nefarious activities as he runs loose through the streets. What we have here is the textbook definition of neorealism--the realistic (and depressing) setting, the abandonment of artifice, and the focus on the struggles of the poor. For a bit of context, Rossellini's Open City (1945) was one of the defining works of the movement (the first neorealist film might be Visconti's 1943 Ossessione) and it started Rossellini's post-war neorealist trilogy for which Year Zero was the conclusion.
Does this description make neorealism seem limited and predictable? Wouldn't endless repetition of lower class suffering would come off as pedagogical instead of inspired at some point? Well, yes and no. It's true that the neorealist movement was limited. It's considered to have ended after De Sica's Umberto D. in 1952 because there wasn't much else to say after such a beautiful and desolate movie. And the French New Wave produced a greater variety and breadth of work in a shorter time period. But even if there aren't that many neorealist movies, the few I've seen so far are masterpieces, and Germany Year Zero is no exception.
Perhaps the movement's greatest triumph is its ability to portray characters instead of symbols. De Sica may have been out to make a point, but bicycle thieves and poor old men are not just bicycle thieves and poor old men. Rossellini may not have quite as much compassion for his characters--and Edmund's evil acts are at times representative of the rise of fascism-- but there is much more here than allegory. Rossellini is sympathetic with the plight of the Germans, even with the older son, Karl-Heinz, who fought the allies until the bitter end, and we get a true sense of what makes the family members act the way they do. The sister, Eva, for example, behaves the way any young girl would, going to bars with her friends and flirting with men. Only, when she's offered a cigarette, she casually tucks it in her bag to sell later on.
Germany, Year Zero is also surprisingly dark. Edmund, who is only trying to make money for his family, soon falls under the influence of his old school teacher, a pedophile who harbors an old Nazi officer and who uses children to sell recordings of Hitler's speeches and other Nazi memorabilia on the black market. Said school teacher caresses and kisses the oblivious Edmund and is creepy enough to rival Peter Lorre in M. Eventually, Edmund gets caught up in activities even worse than his rackets and street gangs, and this is when we really see that hopelessness can have profound moral consequences. All right, maybe a little heavy handed at times, but still very good. 8.4
So that was the first thing I've seen by Rossellini. There's a movie theater here that has a neorealism festival going on, so I hope to see a few more (as well as some Visconti). And now, because I feel like it, I am going to make a list of my favorite Italian movies (though not necessarily the greatest). I feel like I've been overlooking Italian cinema lately, now that most of what I see is French.
1. The Conformist- Bernardo Bertolucci
2. 8 1/2- Federico Fellini
3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly- Sergio Leone
4. Nights of Cabiria- Federico Fellini
5. Amarcord- Federico Fellini
6. Last Tango in Paris- Bernardo Bertolucci
7. The Battle of Algiers- Gillo Pontecorvo
8.Bicycle Thieves- Vittorio De Sica
9. Umberto D.- De Sica
10. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom- Pier Paolo Passolini
11. Blow Up- Michelangelo Antonioni
12. L'Avventura- Antonioni
13. L'Eclisse- Antonioni
14. A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More- Leone
15. La Dolce Vita- Fellini (I was too young. What I remember seems very good, but I would be dishonest if I put it higher)
16. La Strada- Fellini
17. Once Upon a time in the West- Leone
18. Germany, Year Zero- Roberto Rossellini
19. Cannibal Holocaust- Ruggero Deodato
20. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso- Guiseppe Tornatore
Life is Beautiful