There are very few war trilogies that dramatise and document a nation’s history throughout the significant stages of a war. The most famous is probably Andrej Wajda’s trilogy: A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds chronicling Poland’s occupation. The least well known trilogy is Rossellini’s early fascist war achievement: The White Ship, A Pilot Returns and The Man with the Cross, all set in Italy. For the British we have the Humphrey Jennings’s documentaries, Fires were Started, Listen to Britain and Diary for Timothy. Although not officially regarded as a trilogy, it is possible to make out interesting thematic links. As for the American cinema, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, A Walk in the Sun and Pork Chop Hill have been lumped together but they are set in different wars and countries, Germany in WW1, Italy in WW2 and Korea.
When it comes to Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, Paisà and Germany Year Zero; we have two films that deal with Italian Fascism and Nazism’s effects on Italian society plus a third film about the civilian population of post-war Germany. So does the description trilogy really apply here too? Maybe not as a comprehensive war history for the Italians but, perhaps more interestingly, how Rossellini – having established neo-realism along with other hybrid elements – allowed himself to question this label and depart from an obvious neo-realist agenda. The term neo-realist is often misleadingly applied to Rossellini’s films of the 1940s. Certainly his films are very real, acutely placed on the streets and vibrate with his mix of professional actors and ordinary people. Yet consider his style of neo-realism. It embraces moments of Expressionism, heightened naturalism, Brechtian theatricality and an anguished challenge replete with spiritual yearning and existential doubt.
Certain critics of Rossellini once complained that his neo-realist principles were betrayed in Germany Year Zero (1949) and abandoned thereafter. And that Rossellini, the serious filmmaker, was diminished. Surely this criticism can be compared to the early sixties view that Bob Dylan’s renouncing of folk music was an artistic mistake. Did Bob Dylan ever completely abandon folk: he was always far bigger than just a folk singer. Whilst Rossellini (even more than De Sica) was seen as the godfather of a ‘pure’neo-realism and was, until quite recently, never forgiven for supposedly abandoning his principles, so much of Rome Open City (1945) has a vivid documentary realism, especially in the famous sequence where fascists raid a block of flats as they search for resistance fighters. The photography, editing and camerawork, despite Rossellini’s poor film stock and equipment are very impressive. Later films like The Battle of Algiers (1965) or even Gomorrah (2008) owe much to Rossellini’s staging.
Yet even the verisimilitude of Rome, Open City is punctured by absurdist comedy. The resistance worker priest, played by Aldo Fabrizi, pretends to reside over the last rites of an old man who is not dying at all. He has been knocked unconscious from a blow to his head by a pan. The soldiers arrive just before weapons have been hid under the man’s bed. After this ‘comic relief’ Rossellini presents us with the tragic death of Pina (Anna Magnani). She is shot running after the truck carrying her lover Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). The arbitrary nature of her killing is one of the most iconic depictions of death in cinema history. It is a civilian death amidst the ‘fog of war’ and is heartbreaking. Of course this is quintessential neo-realism. Yet Pina’s death is not only juxtaposed between the humorous (almost Hollywood) business with the priest, but followed by a female informer having a lesbian relationship with an older German woman – this could be seen as a reaction against the middle-class, escapist “white telephone films” of the thirties – and the horrific torture of resistance worker Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero). The later is a scene that is aesthetically in the manner of a Renaissance painting of a crucified Christ. Not forgetting other elements of melodrama that propel the film, Rome, Open City is a hybrid of styles departing from its neo-realist base.
A great disruption of narrative is present in Paisà (1946), most noticeably in its second act: A drunk, black American GI (Joe from Jersey) tries to communicate with a young Italian boy but neither can speak each others’ language. Staged in an almost Brechtian manner; Joe, seated on a pile of rubble, bemoans his lot in the army. Gradually sobering up he says, “I don’t want to go home. Home’s a shack.” and then falls asleep. The young boy steals the GI’s boots. The next day, Joe discovers the boy and forces him back home in order to retrieve his boots. Home turns out to be a desolate network of caves where families are living in dire poverty. Feeling both guilty about war’s destruction and also empathetic – his shack and their caves will still be around a long time after the war – the GI forgets his shoes, gets back into his jeep and drives away. Such narrative abruptness continues throughout Paisà up to the film’s climax on the River Po, where the resistance fight it out with the German army.
Rossellini is a master at directing the physical displacement of individuals and the movement of crowds in wartime. Yet his raw, disconcerting documentary-like and awkward breakage of action in Paisà isn’t simply adhering to some neo-realist manifesto for filmmakers, but continues as a prominent force in Rossellini’s post war films with Ingrid Bergman. Here in his controversial film Stromboli, Ingrid Bergman’s flight from the intolerable conditions of the island of Stromboli creates another form of rupture. Her spiritual breakdown asks for some sort of belief in order for her to continue living. Rossellini’s next film Europa 51 sees Bergman depicted as a quasi-martyr/saint/Christ like figure who is adored by a neo-realist crowd of poor people that might have strayed out of De Sica’s Miracle in Milan.(right)
Germany Year Zero (left), the final film of his rough trilogy, is set in post-war Berlin as the city’s population attempts to survive the cities economic and material destruction. At the time his audience and critics were upset and confounded as to why Rossellini had shifted focus to the fate of the former enemy. This was certainly a bold and controversial thing to do. An interesting comparison to make would be with D.W.Griffith’s film Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924, depicting the homelessness and ration queues of Germany after their defeat in WW1). Yet Germany Year Zero’s harsh neo- realism masks a darker psychological tragedy. The devastated cityscape of Berlin has a bleak and often surreal nightmarish look. The film depicts the reality of survival: selling a gramophone record of Hitler’s speeches to British soldiers, an old man goes into hospital to receive more food than can be provided at home, and the slaughtering of a horse by crowd desperate to eat. Yet the film’s most disturbing story is the physical death of a child, alongside of the spiritual death of a boy denied a proper childhood.
Thirteen year old boy Edmund (Edmund Meschke) is placed under extreme pressure by his bartering for goods on the black market. He’s an innocent child turned into a hunter/scavenger enduring the impositions and demands of his family and neighbours to supply their needs. The child has become an unwilling ‘father to the man’ in a world where a new man or woman, untainted by Nazism, has not yet been born. Edmund is covertly persuaded by an ex Nazi school teacher and pederast that the weak most perish and the strong survive. At this point the film makes an audacious departure from neo-realism. Without resorting to crude melodrama, Rossellini shows Edmund poisoning his father. Patricide as a release from the burden of care and the strengthening of the family is hardly a prominent concern of neo-realism.
The last twenty minutes of Germany Year Zero (1948) features some of the most sublime scenes ever committed to film. Edmund wanders the ruined streets to his death. His suicide is a devastating critique of a morally bankrupt society. The real poison is not the one he has given to his father (that act is bad enough) but the taint of an ideology that cannot yet allow its children to live as normal children (There are scenes of groups of children conniving on the black market or about to be sexually abused).
Rossellini does not give us a political Marxist analysis of Edmund’s fate. His death is oddly serene (in tone very like the death of the peasant girl Mouchette in Bresson’s Mouchette). Edmund’s suicide is a terrible act of despair, yet not totally bleak, for there’s a hint of spiritual renewal for others after Edmund as a woman in the street holds the boy’s dead body in a religious manner.
The subject of Rossellini’s War Trilogy is certainly War. Yet Rossellini: the Known and Invisible Consequences of War (cumbersome though that sounds) might be a more apt description. How can fighters and civilians move intelligibly through the chaos of war; can the bringing of peace mean authentic renewal? Germany Year Zero, the most disturbing of these three masterpieces, poses that question.
ROME, OPEN CITY is screening at the BFI on 29 January 2022 | introduced by Dr Julia Wagner | Also on BFI Player