Monday, August 25, 2014

Germany, Year Zero

In Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero Berlin's bombed-out buildings manifest the destruction the war had already wreaked inside the characters' lives. The city, once a specific site of history, becomes in Rossellini's harsh and unforgiving light a non-place. It is at once a child's playground and the theater of war's ambiguous aftermath. Both non-sites converge on their downward path to the abyss.

The children who inhabit such a shadowless site are denied their proper innocence. Edmund's inability to understand the metaphoric content of the schoolmaster's lesson to "look at nature" in order to understand how it is with the weak evidences an innocence that already shows its own complicity with evil. Despite the blinding light, Edmund sees all in his wanderings across the city. But he finds himself incapable of responding to the horror that he witnesses, including the horror he commits with his own hands. His face betrays no emotion.

He attempts to revert to childish games, but the smaller children want nothing to do with him. He hopscotches his way alone across the pocked sidewalk of the unrelenting and unforgiving city. The sound of an organ from a bombed-out church freezes him in his tracks. It is only afterwards, in finally sharing in the responsibility of the city's moral devastation, that Edmund finds one possible response to that which devastates him. Edmund sacrifices himself with seemingly as little thought as when he sacrificed his ill father. But it's a sacrifice tainted by evil.

The weakened city contextualizes the Nazi schoolmaster's lesson. The weak become weaker when human beings resort to their baser natures. Edmund's "fall" from grace is the antidote to the other illnesses of his family. Karl-Heinz, who fought like a good Nazi soldier till the very end, is too scared to turn himself in to the police until the very end of the film. His is an untamed inertia no matter which moral universe he finds himself in. Eva, though not above "saving for later" the cigarettes the French soldiers give her at the dance hall, is too much of a prude to actually prostitute herself for something of more value, like food or better accommodations. The father is a stupid brute who complains incessantly about the fact that he's placing too great a burden on his children. He shows himself as a parent only after Edmund (who at least is trying to behave as an adult) returns home after being out all night, but then (just like his last-minute criticism of the Third Reich) it is much too late to really matter.

One only need look at the city in ruins to see how it is with the weak.

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