Germany Year Zero

History is constantly torn between science and art. Sometimes, people try to resolve this dilemma by pulling art, and fiction in particular, toward the scientific, sometimes, by stressing the artistic side of science, and, sometimes, by calling it a void argument. But how do we avoid a question inscribed in the ambiguity of the very concept of "history": "investigation" / "recitation."

-Daniel Milo

History is experienced as memory. In order to make a science out of such a rich and complicated subject as "history," scholars base all personal assessments against a body of factual information. Concepts and facts gleaned from primary historical sources create a superstructure which is mediated by the personal accounts (lived histories) of those who lived through at least part of whichever subjected period. Historiography describes the scholarly mediation of the available sources, critiquing all histories, in order to approach the truth of our collective human story. "The passiveness of history is absolute, since the material to be manipulated—the past—is irremediably absent: mankind can travel to the moon, but not to the 13th century" (Milo, 90). Yet in the past two hundred years technologies have been invented which record reality and thus become historical documents.

Dagaurre invented photography in 1839, the Lumière brothers showed their first motion picture in 1895, and with the addition of sound to film in the 1920s, a new and very convincing medium was born. Now, one can almost travel to the 13th century if one were to watch a film recorded in the 13th century, but because film is basically a 20th century medium, one can only travel within the 20th century through film stock. Film is a more convincing medium than a paper document because the medium of the photograph almost guarantees an exact physical meaning that whatever hypothetical copy of text cannot. Early semiotic theory, as pioneered by C.S. Peirce, postulates three forms of meaning: iconographic (that of visual resemblance), symbolic (that of the metaphor), and indexical (that of a direct physical relationship). The film medium seems to have innate meaning and truth due to the natural and chemical processes which make their impressions on the stock, producing the final image. Photographic film is as close as one can get to any kind of guaranteed meaning, because that meaning is physical, scientific.

Films themselves don’t however guarantee much meaning, or perhaps they allude to certain meanings, yet guarantee very few meanings. For instance, if one were to look at Amadeus for signs of Vienna, because the film is set in Vienna, he would not make many helpful conclusions because the film was shot in Prague. So obviously some prior knowledge of the film’s material production is necessary, but with that knowledge, one could look at Amadeus for signs of Prague and its false construction as Vienna for the film’s narrative.

The most compelling historical subject to me is 20th century Germany, its role in bringing the Western world into crisis twice in twenty years, resulting in a permanent shift of the balance of power from Europe to the United States, is endlessly fascinating. Alexandra Richie’s compendium on the history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis, is remarkable in her chapter-by-chapter references to and inspirations from Goethe’s masterwork Faust. (In fact, Alexander Stephan, my favorite German professor, commented on one of my essays that all Germans indeed think Faust addresses all issues and struggles.) The idea that literature addresses deep human questions is an idea more popular in the English Department than the History Department, yet Richie’s otherwise sober historical account is kept aloft for me by her use of Goethe quotations. My two favorite, which speak to themes in 20th century German history, are: "The earth endures, and so does Life," (Faust, Part 1), and "We all grow old—but who grows wise?" (Faust, Part 2, Act 2).

Merging my two interests is not difficult, as many films are sufficient records of history. For instance, Farocki’s Videograms from a Revolution, constructed from found footage by those inside the Romanian Revolution of 1989, offers a powerful (let’s hear it for non-fiction) version of history in the present tense; this is no Braveheart. But the Romanian Revolution, while undeniably fascinating, is not something I have the knowledge to appreciate and critique in terms of history. So, to capture my heart and mind, I had to see Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, translated from the German Deutschland im Jahre null. Filmed in March of 1947, this film offers the cinematic version of a news reel about the result of the leveling of Berlin by air raids resulting in the Germans’ 1945 capitulation to the Allied forces. The back of the University of Florida’s copy of the film has this quotation by Rossellini:

I arrived in Berlin in March [1947], by car, around five in the afternoon, just as the sun was going down. I had to cross the entire city to get to the French sector. The city was deserted. The gray of the sky flowed back into the streets, and from about the height of a man one could look over the fallen roofs. To find the streets again under the ruins, people had cleared away the rubble into piles. Grass had begun to grow through the cracks in the asphalt. Silence reigned; each noise intensified the silence. A sickish sweet smell of rotting organic matter exuded from the piled-up rubble. It was as if we were floating over Berlin. I started off down a wide avenue. On the horizon, a huge yellow advertisement was the only sign of life. I slowly came up to this immense sign which was attached to a stone block in front of a store with a tiny facade. It said ‘Israel Bazaar.’ The first Jews had come to Berlin.

If this is Rossellini’s first impression of post-war Berlin, then how does his film follow?

Germany Year Zero centers on Edmund Köler, an early adolescent who wanders around the ruined city looking for things to sell in order to bring some food or money (or cigarettes) back to his family. He meets with a former teacher Herr Enning, a Nazi and pedophile, supplies Edmund with souvenir recordings of Hitler’s speeches to sell on the black market. Enning also, when not rubbing his hands on the boy’s face and arms, preaches Nazi ideology, misappropriated from Nietzsche, to Edmund, instilling in him the idea that "we must have the courage to allow the weak to be destroyed." Enning’s counsel inspires the boy to poison his bed-ridden and starving father, to put him out of his misery, or just aid the destruction of the weak. The disturbing aspect of Rossellini’s film is its demonstration of the superficial ideological effects of the destruction of the Nazi state power or, rather, the persistence of Nazi ideology in a country, a city, that was physically destroyed to demonstrate the necessary elimination of Fascism.

Film scholar Peter Bondanella notes that only the Italian version of this film carried the statement that the film is "intended to be simply an objective, true-to-life picture of this enormous, half-destroyed city… It is simply a presentation of facts. But if anyone who has seen the story of Edmund Köler comes to realize that something must be done… that German children must be taught to love life again, then the efforts of those who made this film will have been amply rewarded" (Bondanella, 50). Yet, as Bondanella is quick to point out, the description by the filmmakers of the film’s being objective is quite at odds with the film’s narrative and theme, which shows the deleterious effects of the lack of morality and misguidedness which still marks the realities of German youth. Also, the appearance of Edmund signifies the Hitler Youth stereotype, the blond, thin, clean young specimen, ripe for brainwashing. I believe, though, that Rossellini is referring to the picture as being objective, for the shots of Berlin are pretty obviously no lie, and if they are false, then surely they signify everything which to my knowledge embodies the Trümmer-ridden reality of destroyed Berlin. While stories are by their nature as fictive constructions not objective, the picture, meanwhile, is.

So this film, in fact, speaks to both sides of historical documentation and understanding. First, its identity as a directly post-war visual register of ruined Berlin, chronicled in Rossellini’s characteristic shot in Year Zero, the long tracking shot of Edmund making his way through Berlin’s wasted landscape. Secondly, this film is an artistic construction, the plot is fictional while the setting is real; Germany Year Zero does express Rossellini’s feelings about the lack of solvency of war to cleanse the Germans of their Nazi-inspired delusions of morality and theories of humanity. And his concerns are historical, not fictional; Rossellini did not make this film to win an Oscar or gain franchise royalties, like most Hollywood films seem to be directed for. Germany Year Zero, and I keep wanting to say "Berlin Year Zero," because it seems tricky to metonymize all of Germany when one is referring solely to Berlin, but anyway, Germany Year Zero responds to history with the same passion and necessity as the historian with exactly the same desires: to find the roots at which ideology and fantasies of power impel people to destructive action and then to hopefully refine human behavior and experience such that we don’t spend lifetimes studying mankind’s folly.

Posted in Film Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.