Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Italian neo-realist movies are hard to dislike, as many were made under guerilla conditions and their
makers seemed so committed to the post-war issues they present. For a while, social honesty was as
commercial as slick fantasy, if the stories were interesting enough. The best of the bunch
(Paisá, Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief) are life-altering gutwrenchers.
Roberto Rossellini and his producer partner took a comercially risky step by making a film about
the problems of starving post-war Germans, at a time
when many Italians were living in similar conditions. He also filmed it in Berlin with non-actors,
the clear point being that human suffering in the aftermath of war goes way beyond winners and losers,
nationalities and ideologies.
Edmund Koeler (Edmund Moeschke) is a towheaded eleven year old who struggles to
help his family survive. They all live in the kitchen of an apartment let out to several families
by a grubbing landlord who rigs the electric circuits to steal power. When the authorities find out,
he passes the blame on to his tentants. Edmund's father is sickly, but there's no money for doctors,
and his older brother foolishly hides out instead of reporting for work call, because he's convinced the allied
authorities will punish him for having been a German soldier. Under pressure for money, Edmund tries
unsuccessfully to sneak onto a work gang, and when he deals in the black market, becomes easy
prey for adult sharpsters. He falls in with some independent teens a bit older than himself, living
licentiously in the ruins, but after helping with their petty crimes, he's cheated by them too. His old
teacher, Herr Enning (Erich Gühne) is no longer allowed to work because of his Nazi leanings,
and now appears to be a procurer for a group of predatory child molestors. He spares Edmund, but
gives the impressionable, disillusioned boy the idea that the 'right thing for a man to do' in his
situation is to murder his bedridden father, who can no longer contribute to the family. The horror is
that in Edmund's valueless world, his 'substitute father's' suggestion makes sense.
Zero Hour for Germany was apparently the 'start from scratch' day when the occupying armies
declared a new economy in force and the country started to rebuild. Instead of starving, the
population were paid tiny salaries and put to work, starting a process that got the devastated
nation back on its feet in only a few years. Rossellini acknowledges the fact that this system
was in place, but concentrates on a family that falls through the cracks to make his points about
the universal suffering of the innocent after a war.
The theme can be seen in other films, the German
The Murderers are Among Us, The Search,
and even Billy Wilder's comedy A Foreign Affair, all very good pictures. Rossellini's movie
has some powerful scenes that make socially conscious points just like the others. The one always
written about is set in the ruins of Hitler's Chancellery. Edmund sneaks a phonograph in to
preview a record of a Hitler speech he's trying to sell to some Yank soldiers. When the shouting
words of the Fuhrer echo through the ruins, Rossellini creates a chilling atmosphere.
The endless miles of bombed-out neighborhoods, with only the street surfaces cleared for traffic, are
typical of all four movies. But Germany Year Zero populates Edmund's grim adventures with
non-actors who seem more real than in the other films, even the 'official' East German picture. The
cheap tricks the punks use to rip-off hardworking Berliners desperate to buy a cake of soap, are
pretty low. There's also no loyalty to be found whatsoever in this Buñuelian landscape, as
the chief teen hood and his hot chick (neither of whom look to be over 14) have no more problem fleecing
Edmund than does the blackmarket thief who snatches the bathroom scale the kid is trying to sell.
The ex-teacher's exact function in the house where we see several young boys brought isn't
clear, but unless I read it entirely wrong, it's the creepiest child molestation situation I've
seen in a movie. Edmund, a smart eleven but without experience, doesn't figure out any of the things
happening there, and he's also unable to distinguish any right or wrong out of
the world he has to live in. Everyone gives him grief, his family who thinks he's a crook, to the
neighbors who accuse him of cheating them. The grim ending of the picture is well-prepared.
Storywise, Germany Year Zero isn't as emotionally gripping as it wants to be, at least not at
this advanced date, mainly because its plotting, carefully making each political and
social statement in turn, never seems as natural as other key neorealist films. Edmund's family situation
covers all the necessary social points - crowding and financial stresses, the brother's
misplaced distrust of the occupation forces. Sis goes out at night, but the scenes where she's
revealed to not be selling herself to allied soldiers for favors, like her cynical girlfriends, are
a bit pat. After Rossellini goes to all the trouble of going to Germany to make this film, it seems
pigheaded to suggest that an Italian director might not have the natural instincts to make a film
about German streets, and capture the correct atmosphere. Yet the notion persists. The
Bicycle Thief makes us think we're seeing right through to the crystal truth about people, but
Germany Year Zero persists as a calculated liberal thesis.
Some of this may be the leading boy, who is credible in all his scenes, but doesn't grab us like the
typical kids do in the Italian-set pictures. Is the sentiment for the unforgettable tot in Bicycle
Thief really based on how cute he is? I hope not. This troubled Edmund doesn't show the dark
clouds boiling inside him, and the horror of the last reel is the dispassion in his acts, as if
his soul had been scalded away by the world around him. But even as we understand, I'm not sure we
feel it as strongly as was intended.
Image's DVD of Germany Year Zero is an Alfredo Leone presentation, the busy producer who brought
us the Mario Bava classics on DVD. 1
The picture is of reasonable quality, obviously better than a 16mm dupe, and in fairly intact shape. The
only shortcoming is that all the dialogue is dubbed into Italian, for Italian release - robbing the
film of much of its sense of place, sometimes the only thing it has going for it. So there's a big
caveat on this one, unfortunately, right from the start. This disc is without extras, and has a very
literal cover illustration that doesn't communicate the story's proper bleakness.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Germany Year Zero rates:
Sound: Okay, but it's dubbed into Italian
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2002
1. ... and who now seems to be altering them for television sales,
sheesh. I'll take back all the sniping remarks I made about him in my
Lisa and the Devil review, but someone stop
him from becoming another Wade Williams!.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson