The Work of Remembrance

Germany, Year Zero, Today

It’s hard to watch Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film Germany, Year Zero to its conclusion. The mood is relentlessly bleak and the landscape bleaker still.

Fleeing the past. African and Ukrainian refugees, Berlin.

By the time its reluctant protagonist Edmund has lost all hope, we have spent the better part of an hour with him as he traverses the ruins of Berlin, seeing a massive amount of evidence that both the past and the future are in extreme danger.

At the time of the film’s release, most critics felt that it suffered by comparison with the director’s two preceding films, Rome Open City and Paisan, which would eventually be grouped with it as the director’s neorealist War Trilogy. 

The storytelling in Germany, Year Zero was too skeletal, they said; the acting by German amateurs less convincing than what Rossellini had managed to wrangle from their Italian counterparts; the overall tone too cool to facilitate identification with Edmund or any other characters.

While these were valid criticisms, if too harshly communicated, they demonstrate a failure to understand the specificity of Rossellini’s achievement in Germany, Year Zero. If this unusual film fails to tell a convincing tale, that is because it recognises that good storytelling demands continuity, which was precisely what cities like Berlin were lacking.

The virtue of focusing on a child Edmund’s age, just beginning adolescence, is that it is a time of radical incoherence. One minute, he is the picture of innocence, seeing and feeling what his elders are too jaded to perceive. The next, he is the opposite, remote and disaffected to an extent that adults find terrifying.

Like Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Edmund often does the wrong thing for the right reason or even no reason at all. Consider the chilling sequence in which he decides to poison his dying father and then pulls the deed off.

Was it because of his former schoolteacher, a diehard Nazi still, who tells him that the weak and infirm deserve to be culled? 

Or was it because his father tells him over and over again that he is tired of being a burden on the family? Or maybe it’s because his father gives a self-pitying speech from his sickbed about how his generation was led astray by Hitler, didn’t do enough to stop him, and must now pay the price?

The fact that we don’t, and can’t know is crucial to our experience of the film, especially because Edmund himself seems to be in the dark about so much. 

It is often said that children handle trauma better than grown-ups. We watch them play amid the rubble of Berlin, seemingly impervious to the depressing spectacle around them. 

But the matter-of-fact way in which they confront their surroundings can be deceptive. Even if they have no conscious memories of what their lives were like before the destruction, their bodies will remember.

While Edmund doesn’t live long enough to deal with the long-term repercussions of this exposure, it is fitting that his last moments take place in one of the many abandoned structures near the place where his family is staying. 

As we watch him wind his way through the bombed-out building like a cat, we are reminded of how much he feels at home there. That’s why his death takes us by surprise.

Early critics of the film took issue with the suddenness of Edmund’s passing, the fact that we haven’t been adequately prepared for it. In Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, by contrast, the audience’s response is carefully managed, so that a series of catharses is achieved. 

Although Germany, Year Zero fails to provide this kind of narrative pay-off, though, it leaves us with something that may ultimately prove more valuable, the realisation that war and its aftermath produce far more trauma than can be contained by storytelling.

From this perspective, Edmund’s fate stands in for this excess, just as the ruins that surround him do. His body will be cleared away. So will the piles of brick. 

Out of sight and out of mind, as the saying goes.

Yet the work of forgetting takes a toll. Somewhere, deep down, we know that things used to be different. 

As we reflect on the massive damage being caused today in Ukraine and in Syria and Iraq over the past two decades, we would do well to pay heed to Germany, Year Zero. Because there are consequences that go far beyond the death and destruction reported in the news.

Even if Rossellini did not succeed in making a film that works as a story, by choosing to go to Berlin and capture the ruins that would soon be swept away, he ended up helping us to remember that work of forgetting. 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.