Revisiting Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Feb. 9 2010 9:50 AM

The War Trilogy

No director has done more with rubble than Roberto Rossellini.

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Germany Year Zero'sterrifying depiction of psychological torment makes it the most powerful and disturbing film of the three. Shot in Berlin in 1946, the film is dedicated to Rossellini's eldest son, Romano, who died before filming began (ruptured appendix). It is the story of the final days of an angelic 15-year-old German boy named Edmund. His family torn apart by the war, his childhood violently truncated, Edmund has little to do but spend his days wandering through the wasteland of postwar Berlin.

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To earn money for his starving family, he tries to pawn an old recording of Hitler's speeches to two Allied soldiers. When he plays the record on a wind-up Victrola, Hitler's voice rings out—"German people, set your hearts at rest! We shall overcome! Victory awaits us in the end!"—while Rossellini pans over rows of demolished buildings and the crumbled Reich Chancellery. An old man walking through the rubble with his son seizes up in surprise, as if he's heard a ghost. And he has. Hitler may be gone, but his spirit stalks the flattened city.

In Germany Year Zero Rossellini goes even further than before in his depiction of devastation. The camera brings the piles of debris into close focus, laying bare each loose brick and warped pipe, as if to expose the inner workings of a deranged mind. As Edmund becomes increasingly tormented, he shuts off, goes mute. The images of Berlin speak for him. He spends more and more time in the streets, gamboling through a ruined landscape that has become a physical representation of the damage inside him.

At one point during the grotesque final sequence, he wanders into an abandoned building. A piece of rubble attracts his attention. He picks it up and wipes it off. It looks, to him, like a gun. He fingers the trigger, raises it to his head, and fires.

Nathaniel Rich is the author ofThe Mayor's Tongue, a novel, and San Francisco Noir, a book of film criticism.

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