Germany Year Zero
Germany Year Zero was made in 1947 by Rossellini and was the third film of his War Trilogy. It takes place two years after World War II ended with Hitler’s defeat and during the Allies occupation of Germany. The country is in ruins. This is highlighted in the film which shows the rundown buildings and rubble of Berlin where much of the film was shot. People were struggling as food was in short supply, jobs were scarce as the economy and industry are at a standstill and need to be rebuilt as there were no post war plans. The struggle was also psychological as the initial optimism after the war had turned to disappointment at the extent of the major difficulties to be overcome. People were eking out an existence as best they could with some even resorting to prostitution, and others trading on the black market, as illustrated in the film. A good illustration of how bad it was is captured in one of the initial scenes in the film where we see people fighting to get food by cutting flesh off a dead horse in the street. Of course the situation was similar in in France and Italy, the latter ruined not just by the war but also as a result of Mussolini’s dictatorship.
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Films at the time largely ignored the lives of the ordinary people and the struggles they were undergoing after the war. This prompted a number of film directors, such as De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini to make films to show the plight of these people and their hardships including poverty and lack of optimism about their lives and their futures. This contrasted with films of the period which were largely escapist in nature, showing lives of glamour unknown to ordinary people. In Italy they named these films “white telephone” films (white telephones were generally used by the glamourous actors in these movies). Similar movies were being made in other countries, and Hollywood was the major player.
Rossellini made his films against this background, possibly reacting against the Hollywood and white telephone styles of film but more importantly, perhaps, at the general ignorance of the issues being faced by ordinary people. He wanted to raise awareness about them and in many cases took a moral stance. For example in Germany Day Zero, one of his objectives was to show the grave situation that the German children were in after the War. He made the first film of his trilogy “Rome: Open City” in 1945. He approached filming differently from convention at the time… He wished to make a “reality” film, rather than a white telephone film, that is, one that mirrored reality as close as possible and which focussed on facts. His subjects were ordinary people living with their everyday struggles. To make it look real, he took a “documentary approach” and shot mainly on location, with natural lighting and amateurs as actors, all of which added authenticity. He also used filming techniques such as, depth of field, long shots, roving cameras and unstructured scripts also helped in this regard. Critical, also, was that he filmed “facts”. This often led to ambiguity with respect to the outcome as he made no judgements on the morality or otherwise of the characters and their actions. This meant that the viewers were left to reach their own conclusion(s) about the film’s meaning- “a posterori” as Bazin describes it (,) and this is what he also describes as “a sound definition of realism in art”. This is in contrast, of course, with the formalist /montage style which manipulate images to provide meaning “a priori”, mainly interpreted by the auteur.
Germany Year Zero, the third film of the Wart Trilogy, offers an objective view of the devastation of post war Germany. Berlin is chosen as the location and the focus is on the lives of the ordinary people still suffering from the after effects of the war, especially the German children. He does this through the eyes of a boy of 12 named Edmund Kohler, who is a symbol of the children whose lives have been destroyed by the war.( It is not unusual in neorealist films to use children as key symbols to represent observers of present difficulties but, in many cases, also holding the key to the future). Whilst the war is over and Hitler is dead, his presence is still felt, reminding people of the trail of destruction he left in his wake and which continues to impact their consciousness to further dampens their spirit and optimism. A good example is given in the film when the wandering father and child run as far as possible from the drone of Hitler’s voice from sound of the vinyl record which is being played by Edmund as he tries to sell it to some US and British GIs.
Bazin concludes that Germany year Zero is a work of art as it leaves the viewers to work out for themselves what it meaning is (Bazin 1949, P. 60). He comments that it is normal for children in films to evoke sentimental feelings in the viewer, primarily because they are their own feelings and that such films “are made in the name of anthropomorphism” ( Bazin 1949, p.57). The viewer wants to be reassured by the face and actions of the child because any mystery surrounding them frightens the viewer. As an example of the reassurance the viewer needs, Bazin cites the film “IT Happened in Europe” (1947), where the death of a 10 year old boy shot down whilst playing the Marseillaise confirms the adult concept of heroism meaning, it relies on the viewers’ sympathy for children who manifest feelings that we understand.
In Germany Year Zero film Rossellini steps does not attribute any degree of sentimentality to Edmund the child. He leaves us with a mystery. We never know what the boy thinks and why he acts the way he does. As Bazin says “the preoccupation of Rossellini when dealing with the face of the child……is to preserve its mystery” (Bazin 1949, P. 58). It would be easy to help us unravel the mystery of the boy’s innermost thoughts and feelings through script interventions and/or actions but he does not do this and leaves us with ambiguity which leads to understand it through “inference and conjecture” (Bazin 1949, P58). Bazin uses various examples from the film to support this assertion. When the boy pours the poison into the cup to kill his father there is no clue as to what his feelings or thoughts are but they could be any of sorrow, anger, indifference, cruelty and so on. Additionally, after being abandoned by his teacher, his friends and, left to his own devices, he walks and walks through the ruins with a frightened look. The question Bazin asks “but what is he frightened of? (Bazin 1949, P. 59). Again we get no clue as viewers. We also see Edmund in various long shots being overwhelmed by barely standing or ruined buildings. This shows his vulnerability and isolation but we still do not understand what he is thinking or feeling. As Rossellini is filming facts and being “objective” his film does not give us any of the clues normally found in in other films with children. We are left perplexed and it is only in the end when he commits suicide that we understand the nature of Edmund’s suffering, as well as those around him. All of this helps provoke awareness of the needs of Germany’s children and its people- which is, of course, the point of the film. This approach to film making does not show sentimentality for the distress the Berliners are enduring. Yet at the same time we are forced to think about their suffering and their future as well as being motivated, perhaps, to do something about it.
Bazin considered realism to be the essence of cinema and a key style of film making with Germany Year Zero being a good example. Bazin concludes, “Realism lives in the style of Rossellini who makes film objective and leaves us to reach our own conclusions about people and events instead of manipulating us to accept someone else’s interpretation” (Bazin 1947, P. 60). This could also be said of the other two films in the trilogy, namely Rome: Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946), both of which have similar themes and style to Germany Year Zero.
Of course, realism as a style of film and scene making was also used by other directors. Notable examples are Visconti (Ossessione, 1942), De Sica (Bicycles Thieves, 1948) and, in fact, a great example of the use of realism in film is in the highly acclaimed film Citizen Kane (1941) which Bazin suggests marked “a decisive step forward in the direction of realism” (Bazin 1967, P. 35). Bazin writes widely about these and other realist films and expands further on the ideas put forward in the article on Germany Year Zero (Bazin 1967, P29 – 50). His writing is provocative and has impacted on my way of thinking about film, specifically, realist films, with the result that I am led to think more about their objectives as well as the filmic techniques used to achieve “the realist effect”. These include objectivity, deep focus, long takes, location shooting, the use of non-professional actors and unstructured narrative amongst others.
Thinking about objectivity in films, Bazin’s asserts that the film-maker directs “facts” and the viewer is left to decide what they mean, leaving the film-maker invisible from the work. This differs from, for example, most of the formalist directors who leave their imprint and their message are normally evident. In Rossellini’s Paisa (1946), for example, Bazin says “the unit of cinematic narrative in Paisa is not the “shot”, an abstract view of reality being analysed, but the, fact” (Bazin 1967, p. 21). The facts follow each other in the film and force the viewer to extract meaning from them. According to Bazin it is unnecessary and can only do harm to add something to the factual character –it would not help bring out the essence of something but would make it less clear. On the other hand films made in the more formalist style such as those made by Eisenstein create a sense of meaning not objectively contained in the images but derived the meaning from their juxtapositions “Montage as used by Kuleshov, Eisenstein, or Gance did not show us the event; it alluded to it….but the final significance was found to reside in the ordering of these elements much more than in their objective content……” (Bazin 1967, P. 25). For example in the film Strike (Eisenstein, 1925), soldiers shooting at a demonstration is juxtaposed with the slaughter of an animal, to highlight “butchery”.
In thinking further about other impactful filmic elements which help convey a sense of realism, I am drawn to deep focus/depth of field and long takes, also known as mise -en-scene. This is where a whole scene is covered in one take without intrusive editing. For example, in filming a dialogue between 2 individuals the normal approach is “shot-reverse-shot” switching from one to the other with the dialogue whereas deep focus would hold the camera on both during the dialogue. Bazin thinks that “The influence of Citizen Kane cannot be overestimated in this regard. (Bazin 1967, P. 35).
“The dramatic effects which used to depend on the editing are all obtained here by the movement of the actors within a chosen framing” (Bazin, 1967, P. 34). Mise -en-scene gives a better representation of reality as it shows the relationship between the objects both in space and time as one would observe in everyday life. Everything is seen with equal clarity and as a whole and the viewer can decide what is meaningful and interesting. Bazin considered this the essence of cinema realism and called its development “a dialectical advance in the history of film making “(Bazin, 1967, P. 34). Why? Because the camera does not manipulate our perception of the objects being viewed and the long take provides the continuity that we expect in everyday life.
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There are many examples in Germany Year Zero which use deep focus and long takes. One scene shows Edmund walking through a ruined Berlin, against a backdrop of a ruined city where he is surrounded by desperate people, perhaps really showing ruined aspirations. Also mise-en-scene is common in other films examples such as Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) and Citizen Kane (Welles, 1948). In Bicycle Thieves it is used to draw our attention to the protagonist and his desperate journey to regain his bicycle in the grey and war torn city. Also in many of the same shots which show him searching for his bicycle we see equally desperate working class inhabitants in their various locations such as queuing for any available work, being in equally dire straits at the pawn shop behind the Ricca’s wife, and in other situations such as the bicycle market, the church hall, and so on. In all these cases the scenes are constructed to highlight the common socioeconomic problems suffered by the working class of which Ricca and his family are members. Citizen Kane has many scenes of similar significance, most notably the famous “snowball” scene which shows the boy Charles Foster Kane’s position in the hierarchy of events which are set to determine his future.
There are also other factors which are highly significant in making films real notably, the use of non-professional actors. In films such as Bicycle Thieves the lead character Ricca is played by a factory worker and in Germany year Zero Edmund, the lead boy, is played by a young circus performer. However, a combination of professional and non –professional actors was mostly used which Bazin called “the law of the amalgam” (2005 Bazin, P.) but the objective was to use the professionals in roles which they normally do not perform so that the viewer is not left with any preconceptions because the film is more important than the stars unlike Hollywood films, for example.
There are, of course many other filmic elements such as location settings, camera work and unstructured narrative, for example, which also lead me to think about their impact on conveying realism in films. Bazin describes their impact as “reconstituted reportage” (Bazin 1967, P. 34).
In conclusion, neorealist films such as Germany year Zero helped develop cinema considerably both in thinking and filmic techniques. Leaving the last word to Bazin on neorealist films “it is not the least of the merits of Italian cinema that it has been able to find the literary cinematic equivalent for the most important revolution of our time” (Bazin 1967, P. 37).
- André Bazin, ‘Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation’, in Bert Cardullo (ed.), André Bazin and Italian Neorealism, Continuum, 2011, 29-50; also in André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, volume 2, California University Press, 1967, 16-40
- André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, What Is Cinema?, volume 1, California University Press, 1967, 9-16
- André Bazin, ‘The Evolution of Film Language’, What Is Cinema?, volume 1, California University Press, 1967, 23-40
- André Bazin, ‘The Virtues and Limitations of Montage’, What Is Cinema?, volume 1, California University Press, 1967, 41-52
- André Bazin, ‘Bicycle Thieves’, in Bert Cardullo (ed.), André Bazin and Italian Neorealism, Continuum, 2011, 61-73; also in André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, volume 2, California University Press, 1967, 47-60
- André Bazin, ‘Vittorio De Sica, metteur en scène’, in Bert Cardullo (ed.), André Bazin and Italian Neorealism, Continuum, 2011, 74-88; also in André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, volume 2, California University Press, 1967, 61-78
- Ian Aitken, Realist Film Theory and Cinema: The Nineteenth-Century Lukácsian and Intuitionist Realist Traditions, Manchester University Press, 2006
- Dudley Andrew, André Bazin, Oxford University Press, 1978
- Dudley Andrew, with Henri Joubert-Laurencin (eds), Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and its Afterlife, Oxford University Press, 2011
- Christopher Faulkner, ‘Critical Debates and the Construction of Society’, in Michael Temple & Michael Witt (eds), The French Cinema Book, first edition, BFI Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 172-180
- Daniel Morgan, ‘Bazin and His Legacies’, in Michael Temple & Michael Witt (eds), The French Cinema Book, second edition, BFI Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 234-240
- Lucia Nagib, Christopher Mello (eds), Realism and the Audiovisual Media, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
- Christopher Williams, Realism and the Cinema: A Reader, BFI, 1980
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