[Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark as part of their Childhood films countdown. I neglected to post here when I posted it there - the holiday weekend and all, traveling, things were hectic... I wish I were taking this WWII class just now - I took it a couple years ago.... Childhood in WWII films would make a good paper; this and my other post for WITD would almost make a paper between them.]
War films often use children as protagonists - we've seen several in this countdown already (Come and See, Empire of the Sun, The Tin Drum, among others), with more to come surely. There are many reasons for this - I think those reasons add up to to the fact that the plight of children, of childhood, in wartime brings the horror of war into very sharp focus. Children in war films may be victims, they may be corrupted, may become (or be) evil, or at least hard-boiled, they may not seem to understand the nature of war, may not seem to treat it as completely real - but however they act, or are affected by the war, they reveal its nature through what it makes them. Children are new people - they are pliable, in the process of being formed - and what war turns them into shows us what war is. (And this, in turn, is why so many great films about childhood seem to be war films - because childhood is about becoming what you will be, and war heightens that, the way childhood heighten the effects of war. And maybe because childhood isn't necessarily as innocent, pleasant, secure as we wish it were - children in war become hyperbolic versions of childhood in any difficult situation.) Beyond this, children in war films draw the viewer in - child protagonists are often in the position of the viewer, having to learn about their world as they move through it. And maybe most of all - whatever a child might do in a war film, we know the child did not cause the ear. Children are always acted on by the war, no matter how active they are - adults in warfare raise questions of responsibility that children can sidestep.
In Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, his protagonist, Edmund, does all these things. He is innocent - but he is corrupted, even before the film started (with his Nazi education), and is led to more and more compromised actions that culminate in murder. He is formed by the war, and by the horrific aftermath of the war - learning from it, made what he is by it. And he is our guide to the world of the film, Berlin after the war. This is quite literal - the camera often follows him through the streets, watching him in his environment, showing us the city and what happens there. He guides us through many encounters, vignettes of suffering and cruelty, in the streets and at home. At the same time, though, he is not just guide but quester - searching for food, searching (quite explicitly - Rossellini's symbolism and ideas aren't subtle here) for meaning, what the war meant, what he is, what life means for himself and others. He is both Virgil and Dante in the inferno of ruined Berlin - and one of the damned souls as well, a ghost in a ghost of a city.
There is no question that it is hell, and these are the damned. Rossellini doesn't dwell on Germany's role in the war, but the tone of the film, and the overall gist of the story doesn't leave much doubt about it - the people of Berlin are in hell, a hell on earth, and one they created, and one they damned themselves to. This is a relentlessly pessimistic film. Everyone Edmund encounters is a kind of monster. His father is weak and useless, full of self pity, if basically a decent man; his brother hides from the Allies, a burden to his family, who then whines at them for doing what they have to to help him. His sister, actually, might be the one truly admirable person in the film - willing to do what she can to help her father and brother, unwilling to condemn Edmund for what he does to help them, constantly trying to get Karl-Heinz to take responsibility, all while waiting in vain for her own lover, who is held in a prison camp somewhere. And those are the good guys - their neighbors are selfish bullies who steal and condemn and pass the blame. Edmund meets a former teacher who is a particularly overdetermined monster - a pedophile who seems to live with a ring of pedophiles, an unrepentant Nazi, still preaching its ethos of the strong living at the expense of the weak (while ducking work on some kind of health exemption) and living off the black market. The other kids Edmund encounters are hard-bitten thieves and gangsters. The people in the streets are selfish and dangerous - they fight over a dead horse in the street; old women chase Edmund away from a job he gets, claiming he's too young, though really doing it to get more for themselves. Even the Allies are shown as careless jerks, taking pictures at Hitler's bunker and buying Nazi memorobilia. (Nothing new about nitwits taking selfies at Auschwitz.) There isn't much relief from it, and even good deeds come wrapped in cynicism - a doctor who does a good deed; Christl's relative kindness; Edmund's sister, and Edmund himself, up toa point...
Only up to a point. As things go from bad to worse for Edmund and his family, he begins to consider desperate measures. His father is sick, and after a brief stay in a hospital, he comes home, to find the family in very dire straights. There is no more power in the house; they have no money, no food - they are in trouble. The old man's self-pity is getting the best of him - he tells Edmund he'd be better off dead; when he comes home he says he has been "condemned to live." Well - not for long. Edmund, still scrambling for food or a way out of this, had been talking to the teacher again - Henning spouted Nazi platitudes about letting the weak die so the strong can live, and Edmund took it to heart. He acts: he poisons the old man, hoping that would let the other three get on with their lives. It immediately backfires - the minute he gives his father the poison the police arrive and Karl Heinz decides to do the right thing. (I told you Rossellini wasn't being subtle.) In fact, Karl-Heinz is very quickly released (as his father and sister had told him would happen), but it is too late - the father is dead, and Edmund realizes he killed his father for nothing. It's too much - he runs - retracing many of his steps from earlier in the film, but especially going back to Henning - who drives him away in horror, refusing to take responsibility for what he said.
That (as Rossellini says in the introduction to the film on the Criterion disk) is the key idea of the film - it is about bad education. Edmund is trained by Nazism, grows up in it, internalizing its values - but when he acts on those values, his elders deny responsibility. The symbolism behind this, of the German people creating Nazism willingly, and then trying to pretend it wasn’t them, is clear enough as well. Germans do not come off well. The father, who seems to have disliked Nazism, clearly never had the courage or strength to do anything about it. His sons embrace it unambiguously. Henning is the other side - an unrepentant Nazi, but one who ducks and dodges - avoiding work, avoiding responsibility, dispensing bad advice and running away from it. Getting a former student to peddle Hitler records to soldiers for him (which I suppose is better than the other fate he had in mind for Edmund.) He’s a thoroughly loathsome creature.
And yet, the film is not just about damnation. Alongside Edmund's story runs his brother's story - in some ways, Karl Heinz is the hidden center of the film. He is the source of the family's trouble, being on the run - they have to feed him, and he not only costs them a ration card, but he is the most employable member of the family and does nothing. He is hard to take - preaching at his sister and Edmund for the things they do to feed him (self-righteously refusing to eat the food Edmund brings back from his nighttime adventure, all while reclining on a cot.) But one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way it balances his story against Edmund's. The ironies of their stories are not subtle, the way Karl-Heinz does the right thing at exactly the time Edmund does the worst possible thing - but the construction is more sophisticated than the obvious irony might indicate. Karl-Heinz’s story unfolds in the background - Rossellini watches Edmund, but in a way the real battle is fought over Karl-Heinz - his struggle and his decision is the decisive one. Except it isn’t. The film plays as though we think Edmund’s story is the real one, but the real story that is his brother's - except it isn’t, Edmund's is the real center.
Both brothers act at the same time - Edmund to poison his father; Karl-Heinz to surrender to the Allies - and their actions cancel each other out. Karl-Heinz gives himself up to save his father; Edmund kills his father to save his brother - but when he does, Karl-Heinz no longer needs saving, and when Karl-Heinz acts his father is beyond saving. The final sting of the story comes from the fact that Karl-Heinz could in fact save the family - had he done so at any other time, he would have, but he waited just a bit too long. And, consistent with Rossellini's theme, he waited because of his education - he took to heart what he learned from the Nazis, the need to fight to the death, the lack of mercy to expect from the Allies (probably justified, if he'd been caught by the Russians) - and held until it was too late. And Edmund is doomed.
The final section of the film is devastating. Edmunds walks through the city, retracing many of his travels from earlier in the film. He goes to Henning, who drives him out; he looks for the kids, Joe and Christl, but they chase him away; he wanders the streets, increasingly isolated - he tries to play soccer with some kids, but they won't have him; he hears music, and stands outside a church - but as others go toward the music, he turns away, alone.
And goes on, drawn on to death. But never quite shedding his place as a child. He tries to play, hopscotch, soccer - right up to the end, he is sliding down a bar he finds in a ruined house. But he also can't escape his place as a killer, as the product of a monstrous system who has become monstrous himself...