If Paisan is a balm to soothe the pains of war, then Germany Year Zero (1947) is its verso: the festering scab that refuses to heal. Indeed, all of Berlin is one great open wound, with most buildings and recognizable landmarks reduced to rubble by the Allied forces’ nightly bombing campaigns; the few left standing are charred skeletons barely hospitable for human habitations. This is un-monumental Berlin captured unlaquered at its very nadir, a post-WWII ground zero before the term took on its American connotation, a country starting from square one (or year zero) after Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich fell 988 years short of its murderous proclamations. Humanity leaks out from gaps in the rubble, where folks eke out a ration-book bolstered existence, with five families routinely squeezed into an apartment that can comfortably hold just one. With a sickly father unable to work and a brother afraid register for fear of reprisal (his regiment fighting to the last as the city fell, Karl-Heinz must have done some seriously gruesome shit), the breadwinning falls to twelve-year-old Edmund. Wandering the hardscrabble streets, Edmund becomes privy to all the petty black-market stratagems deployed by the packs of apparently children wandering about like wild dogs and sleeping out-of-doors. He also learns (but does he fully understand the ideology?) that der Fuhrer’s ethos still thrives in the city’s alleyways and blind corners. In one of the film’s creepiest interactions, a schoolteacher and sometime Hitler Youth-recruiter trying to pawn off vinyl recordings of Hitler’s speeches on the black market, with kids serving as go-betweens. While weaselling into his business proposition, the teacher sits Edmund on his lap, and begins stroking his face and neck like a covetous pederast. Literally, and figuratively the moral order has crashed down with the city’s edifices, and clearly, there are things worse than hunger and despair still lurking in Berlin.
Playing the speech on a portable gramophone for a pair of interested soldiers, the sound emanates louder than it ought to be. We cut away to broken streets as Hitler proudly trumpets the inevitability of his victory, his words rebounding emptily off bare walls. Though Rossellini claims a desire to observe only, and not to indict, with the unrelentingly bleak spectacle he presents, it’s hard not to rage and storm against the German military. But they’re not the only ones guilty of some pretty ugly transgressions. American soldiers tour the site where Hitler and von Braun immolated themselves as if it were just another photo-op, and the French—Tommies, as they are derisively known—indulge in Cognac and cigarettes when most have barely enough to eat. Wealthy Germans too swindle their own kind; Edmund is taken by portly a man in a town car, who trades the scale Edmund’s trying to hawk for two tins of meat. (Noticeably absent is the Italian presence; if there’s one disturbing element to this and Paisan, it’s Rossellini’s refusal to satisfactorily interrogate his country’s own complicity and Fascist legacy.) Against all this, there’s the morbid mathematics of food supply and the elderly on their deathbeds—that awful calculus between saving one life versus the many. It leads to an impossible, absolutely devastating decision and not one, but two deaths—a murder and a suicide—which could be taken as sinking into a nihilistic morass, or reaching some kind of sorrowful transcendence. (I’m inclined to align with the former; after Edmund plainly and simply jumps to his death, which just ripped my heart out again, as it did when I first saw it at college, the camera tilts up to capture a tram trundling by, an avatar of a world that keeps on spinning, heedless of peoples’ pain.)
Rossellini’s act of filmmaking, unfettered and in the streets, is nearly unimaginable in a modern controlled-media context where caskets of fallen soldiers coming back from Iraq are the great black hole, the one slice of morbid pageantry censored from the public eye; it’s nothing short of revolution (or at least, it should have been taken that way) given the epoch-shaking schism that the war was for Europe and its citizenry. Representing the physical, awful fact of being in a world rent asunder and giving no quarter, irrespective of the cries of “Too soon! Too soon!” is just an astonishing process. The film is also remarkable for its awareness of history transpiring at this very moment. As Edmund’s father decries how he once soldiered on as part of the Nazi war machine, the camera fixes its gaze on Edmund the entire time, making manifest who will bear the eventual and lasting brunt of his transgressions. So Rossellini doesn’t let Germany off the hook, but he’s magnanimous enough to understand that real people were (and are) suffering real torment in the war’s aftermath, irrespective of nationality, ideology, or any of the other roadblocks thrown in the way of people connecting with each other. For that reason, Germany Year Zero is the most sublimely empathic vision ever committed to the screen.