Roberto Rossellini emerged from the carnage of the second world war a fully formed cinematic poet. Profoundly affected by the violence he had witnessed, and motivated by the gathering horrors of the postwar reconstruction, Rossellini set out to document “life” in its un- (or, at least, less-) varnished immediacy. Widely hailed as the most influential films in the nascent neorealist school, Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” used few sets, few trained actors, virtually no expensive materials or technologies, and (perhaps paradoxically) almost no “live” sound recording. Filming began just as the war came to an end, amid the ruins of wasted cities and towns, featuring performances by people still struggling to come to terms with what they had lost, what they had suffered, and what they had ahead of them still.
These harrowing, almost mercilessly dark films famously played on the expectations of their initial audiences. They were, generally, unaccustomed to such an audacious approach to film as art, reality as story: what could they make of this new approach, of this mingling of the rawness of newsreel footage with the stylized expressionism of narrative cinema?
Meanwhile, from Bergman to Fellini to Truffaut to Godard to Rohmer, the next generation would spend countless hours with these films, studying them, debating them, lifting ideas and inspiration. Indeed, whether these developing masters were actively trying to emulate his style or developing ways to rebel against it, Rossellini and his War Trilogy announced a new beginning, a new watermark, a kind of cinematic year zero. Now, finally, they are available in watchable form – for decades, the only prints that have been available have been a mess – and collected in a typically extraordinary Criterion box set, replete with exhaustive liner notes, interviews with key players, commentaries by film historians, and illuminating introductions by Rossellini himself.
Rome: Open City
The first film is the most melodramatic (and my favourite) of the three. Rome: Open City (1945) is a terrifying study of the breakdown of morality and conscience in occupied Italy. At the centre of the story is an unwavering priest (played to unforgettable perfection by one of the few name actors to be involved in this project, Aldo Fabrizi) whose unwillingness to stray from “the good” provides a moral compass in an otherwise chaotic climate. Around him swirl the young neighbourhood boys (those symbols of the fragility of society), the craven but cold German overlords, the starving families, the underground resistance fighters, the informants and opportunists.
By turns a cutting attack on the emptiness of Nazi ideology – we witness a German officer declaring his certainty that he can force an Italian to talk since Germans are superior to this “slave race” (he fails) – and a deeply humanist account of the suffering of an occupied people, Rome: Open City ends on an ambivalent note, a heartrending shot of children comforting each other after witnessing a traumatic event. Indeed, it features a last act so shocking in its brutality and desolation that it (along with the now-famous line “It is not hard to die a good death; what is difficult is to live a good life”) is almost unbearably moving.
Paisan, made the following year on a much grander and more ambitious scale, offers six vignettes detailing allied and partisan battles against the Germans leading to their final expulsion from the country. The tone is much less theatrical than the previous film – the episodic structure sees to that – but many themes and tropes recur to help unify the whole. Indeed, each episode emphasises the lack of/difficulty of communication that characterises international conflict. Misunderstandings, incomprehension, and confusion underwrite the film, helping to mirror the chaos of the battles. A much more “national” depiction of the calamity of the war than its predecessor – the film begins in Sicily and winds up in the Po – there is an intimacy lacking here in comparison to Rome: Open City.
The final film in the trilogy is the unrelentingly bleak Germany Year Zero. A briskly-paced 70-minutes shot in the post-apocalyptic rubble of a wasted German city, the film follows a young boy as he makes two terrible decisions. The first is to murder his ailing, “socially useless”, father, following a lesson from a nefarious Nazi schoolteacher. The second is to climb to the top of a bombed out apartment block, and step off the edge. A nightmarish landscape populated by a desperate, guilt-ridden, and morally-twisted people, the Germany of the film occupies a luminal zone between its disastrous past and its uncertain future. Astoundingly, Rossellini dedicated the film to his own son Romano, recently dead of appendicitis. What moral strength and courage to draw this parallel, to allow the audience to consider this broken morality tale as a “what if” as much as a portrait of a shattered nation!
In view of the deplorable state of the films from which Criterion has mastered these DVDs, they make for some quite amazing viewing. Though many scratches and stray hairs remain, and the darker shades might scan a bit red, a bit grey, a bit silver, the overall effect remains as indelible as ever. (One mustn’t forget that, even when they were first shown, these films would have exhibited many cosmetic flaws due to the cheapness of the equipment and materials onto which they were recorded).