Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero) Frederico Rossellini (It. 1948) Edmund Moeschke; Franz-Otto Kruger, Ingetraud Hinze
viewed YouTube 14 May 2020 during the Great Plague
Like Raqqah like Homs – what lies behind these ruins…the death of Patriarchy?
The opening title section of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (GYZ) is a series of establishing shots tracking through the smashed up streets of Berlin immediately after the war. The city’s face is shattered, its core reduced to rubble and the buildings, such as are standing, resemble broken teeth or gravestones. The images are overlaid by the rhythmic strident cacophony of the overture to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman as ironic counterpart to the desolate imagery.
The question is what is this sequence establishing?
I think it establishes that in GYZ Rossellini is looking at what is to live a life under the condition of total defeat. Conditions are situations that are all encompassing. They surround and press on us, as omnipresent as the air we breath. Conditions are pressurised containers. Siege plague famine and total war create in extremis the conditions in which the human population tries to survive, at whatever the cost. The rules of survival permeate all behavioural responses, drilling down deeply into both the collective and individual psyches.
Rossellini’s plot centres about one family and their survival. Like everyone else they live in buildings that are bombsites, sharing space with other families and penned into their rooms like hollowed out caves. Life is clearing rubble, digging graves, prostitution, theft, selling, hiding. The women walk out with the occupying soldiers, the children steal, sell, pimp, men cowed and frightened, hide from the authorities who are everywhere. Life is focused on getting to tomorrow. Life and death are familiars, but what Rossellini’s film excavates in parallel to the physical ruins are the reverberating echoes of life lived in the ruins of a shattered ideology: Nazism.
These Berliners were the people who some five years earlier had cheered Hitler as the Fuehrer and embraced his fantasy that they the Germans were the superior race destined to bring the world under their heel. For Rossellini these Germans are a people psychologically adrift . Scratch many of them, and just under the skin is National Socialism. Many still desire recourse to the old Nazi certainties but are unhinged by the evidence everyday life pushes into their faces, that they themselves are living proofs to the failure of these shibboleths of the Third Reich.
A twelve year old boy Edmund sits at the centre of the scenario. He is a luminous being who increasingly comes to dominate Rossellini’s attention. Edmund is a beautiful child: a physical embodiment of the Aryan somatic fantasy, but also the repository of a strange purity that stands out against the images of desolation. And Rossellini’s script marks him out for a specific purpose.
Resourceful observant truthful Edmund plays a duel role in GYZ: one illustrative, the other mythic as the scenario plays out its sacrificial design.
As an illustrative figure Rossellini follows Edmund as he walks through Berlin. There are moments experienced of the city’s strange residual beauty, but mostly we see the conditions of destruction and relations of total defeat: the double crossing, the bullying, the black market, the dog eat dog situation in which the kids like packs of urban dogs play prominent roles. Rossellini also uses Edward to point up the sexual undercurrents of Nazism and its male dominated fetishism, the paedophile corruption underlying its racial ideology. Organisations such as the Hitler Youth, based on a glorification and glamorisation of the male body were tacitly based upon a certain a sexual dynamic between older men and young boys. This kind of sexual relationship is strongly suggested but not actively played out in the relationship between Edmund and his friendship with his ex teacher, a resentful unreformed Nazi.
Edmund travels through all this with calmness of spirit aware of but not contaminated by the world in which he moves. And in this world Rossellini has reserved a particular mythic role for Edmund.
GYZ’s plot revolves about the sick father of the family and its desire to keep him alive. There is a key scene after the bedridden father returns from hospital and talks candidly to his children about the Nazi past and his own failure, like everyone else, to have opposed Hitler. The camera comes to rest on Edmund as the father concludes:
“We just have to acknowledge our own guilt…” At some point in the development of the psychic and material strands of the film’s dynamic, Edmund comes to understand he will murder his father, he has been chosen as the agent of death.
Of course the narrative formulates a rational basis for Edmund’s killing: his father expressing his wish to die, so as not to be a burden; the teacher’s suggestion that the weak such as his father should be allowed to go to the wall. Edmund himself after the murder, tries to blame the teacher for the own crime. But these rationalisations as scripted linkages are weak, little more than pretexts for Edmund’s act as if his act of murder derived from a sort of cost benefit decision. Edmund’s impulse draws on a deeper psychic wellspring, the imperative to enact a rite of purification which takes possession of the boy and itself carries out the deed. And this is the reason Rossellini went to Berlin and made his film.
Rossellini in creating his parricidal climax is pointing to mythic necessity as the way to expiation and hence the shot of Edmund over the father’s lines about the need to acknowledge guilt. Edmund is possessed by a force greater than and exterior to himself. The father must die by the hand of his progeny, his male offspring. Only this sacrifice will free people to move out of the patriarchal past and to come to terms with the terrible crimes that were committed in their name.
But this is no trite Freaudian Oedipal story, where the son murders daddy, replaces daddy and then marries mummy. This is another type of myth: a spiritual myth of self sacrifice. As Rossellini understands it, this killing this ritual murder must be carried out by the agency of an innocent being but one who accepts the guilt for his action and in reconciliation kills himself. When the cycle of death closes in on itself, the saga ends. Only through mythic death is there the possibility of renewal.
In reaction to the still unfolding horrors of the Third Reich I think Rossellini in Germany Year Zero travels all the way to Berlin to make a film that will represent a rite of purification of behalf of Germany and its people. It is film as liturgy and in the figure of Edmund he found his symbolic mediator for the necessary sacrifice.
The last year zero before this one, was the year of Christ’s Birth, another symbolic sacrificial figure who accepted the guilt of our sins and died to save the world. And as one of the architypal images of Chirst’s death is the Pieta, the image of the dead crucified Christ attended by his mother Mary, so in the last shot of Germany Year Zero Rossellini composes his own version of the Pieta, as a woman prays beside the crumpled body of the dead Edmund. Another spiritual death before camera tilts upwards towards the ruins.