Carmela Sazio in Paisà (1946) (all photos IMDB)

Guilt and Exculpation in Roberto Rossellini’s ‘War Trilogy’

“The War Trilogy” is just as propagandistic as any film from the Mussolini period; the difference is most of us want to believe this propaganda.

There would be no Rossellini and perhaps no neorealism without fascism and not simply because we often think of neorealism as a rejection of fascism; neo-realism was born in the midst of fascism and originally served its propagandistic purposes.

Classic Italian cinema has its roots in fascism. In 1937 Benito Mussolini and his son Vittorio founded Cinecittà, the renowned Italian film studio later dubbed “Hollywood on the Tiber”. Believing cinema to be “the most powerful weapon”, Mussolini set in motion a newly invigorated film industry in Italy, watched over but not directly controlled by his head of cinema Luigi Freddi, that provided not only open propaganda (although it provided plenty of that) but also impressive technical achievements (like the mass scenes in Scipio Africanus of 1937), the romantic opulence of the “white telephone films” (comedies and melodramas that openly celebrate conspicuous consumption), and more daring and remarkable films (even if these were often made in spite of the regime) such as Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione of 1943 (a film widely regarded as the progenitor of the neorealism movement).

Roberto Rossellini — one of the brightest luminaries of postwar Italian cinema, revered by directors and critics alike, and generally lauded as the true father of neorealism — began his career in this fascist context. He was close friends with Vittorio Mussolini and it was through the latter’s influence that Rossellini was able to direct his first three notable films: The White Ship (1941), A Pilot Returns (1942), and The Man with a Cross (1943). Often dubbed the “Fascist Trilogy”, these are propaganda films. The first was funded by the Minister of the Navy, the second was sponsored by the Air Force, and the third rewrites then-recent history to depict an Italian defeat at the hands of the Russians as a victory.

Moreover, if we are to ground the rise of neorealism in Rossellini’s output, then it is to these films that we must turn — despite the fact that neorealism is often explicitly defined as the postwar response to fascism and the consequent economic and social ruin. The films of the “Fascist Trilogy” bear many of the hallmarks of this much-debated style of filmmaking: the use of non-actors, location filming, a documentary approach even in fictionalized narratives, contemporary protagonists and situations, the inclusion of the quotidian detail often left out of film, and a concern with the rigors and demands of everyday life (in this case, of course, the everyday lives of enlisted men). The White Ship, along with Rossellini’s ties to Mussolini, made the director the darling of the fascist regime; the film won the Cup of the National Fascist Party, the most prestigious award for film in fascist Italy.

Critics and Rossellini enthusiasts, of course, ostentatiously exert themselves in an effort to absolve Rossellini of any complicity with the fascist political landscape within which he worked and thrived. Many writers emphasize the notion that Rossellini was forced to deal with a greater level of censorship and authoritarian control than is conducive to a director known for his insistence upon independence. But this is a backward projection of an older Rossellini who feared being tied to the fascist past: of course, an authoritarian regime would impose authoritarian control; the fact is Rossellini greatly benefited from his connections to Mussolini — there would be no Rossellini and perhaps no neorealism without fascism and not simply because we often think of neorealism as a rejection of fascism; neo-realism was born in the midst of fascism and originally served its propagandistic purposes.

The project of absolution of both Rossellini and Italy at large, the attempt at political redemption through aesthetic means, arguably starts with Rossellini himself in his most celebrated film Rome Open City of 1945, which together with Paisàn (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948) form the so-called “War Trilogy”. These films chart a concerted effort to distance both Rossellini and Italy from fascism, to make a plea to the Allies to consider Italians not simply contrite former enemies but rather, and more importantly, victims themselves of fascism — now coded a foreign (German) importation rather than a home-grown form of authoritarian control.

Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray edition of the “War Trilogy” encourages one to consider once again the history, politics, and aesthetics behind these films. The reason for rehearsing Rossellini’s past here is not simply to reveal his opportunism (although he certainly was an opportunist), but also to gain a stronger purchase on just what is at stake in these films — particularly the seminal Rome Open City — and what makes them (and neorealism as a whole, or at least Rossellini’s brand of it) work the way that it does. It is not the case that Rossellini moved from propaganda films full of tendentious artifice to a cinema of truth. The “War Trilogy” is just as propagandistic as any of the films in the “Fascist Trilogy”.

The difference is that most cinephiles have simply accepted the propaganda of the “War Trilogy” as truth. But this was, of course, central to Rossellini’s strategy. He once said: “I sought only to picture the essence of things. I had absolutely no interest in telling a romanticized tale along the usual lines of film drama. The actual facts were each more dramatic than any screen cliché.” There are no facts here, however — it is artifice through and through — and Rome Open City is replete with the most blatant of cinematic and political clichés. That this overly romanticized filmic expiation of Italy’s sins was ever taken as any manner of “realism” is perhaps the surest sign that aesthetic propaganda is perniciously effective.


Rome, Open City (1945)

Rome Open City may be the most effective work of propaganda within film history. It has long stood as a milestone within the trajectory of the medium. Jean-Luc Godard famously quipped, “All roads lead to Rome Open City.” In a somewhat breathless essay on the film, included in the Criterion booklet, Irene Bignardi writes that Rossellini created a film that was “a new kind of movie, never before seen.” Such hyperbole is common in critical assessments of the film and its importance.

Writers often celebrate the manner in which Rossellini portrays the unlikely alliance between the Catholic priests and the communists, standing together in solidarity against the reprehensible incursions of the debauched and depraved German enemy. Historians often point out that this was indeed a precarious alliance that fell completely apart in the immediate aftermath of the war. Rossellini’s point seems to be that people of good will unite in the face of evil, regardless of ideological difference. It is one of many of the humanizing themes in the film.

Indeed, Rossellini endeavors to demonstrate that his main protagonists — the priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), Pina (Anna Magnani), and Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) — are far more alike than their differing social classes and political ideals would suggest. When Manfredi informs Don Pietro that the signal from the members of the underground that he is supposed to meet in Manfredi’s place (Manfredi being under suspicion and concerned about surveillance) is a popular song, he is surprised and amused to see that Don Pietro not only recognizes the silly secular tune, but can whistle along.

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There is a sense within the film that Rossellini attempts to construct images elucidating the brotherhood of man — in times of duress and suffering, people come together and this is an inherent force for the good. But there is one group of people that has no such redeeming characteristics, people that Rossellini feels very comfortable vilifying in the most outlandish ways: the Nazi occupiers. The person in charge of the Nazi forces in Rome, Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), is portrayed as a degenerate homosexual, so depraved in his unnatural delight in torture that he is more caricature than character. His right-hand woman, Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), is a remarkably ghoulish lesbian.

What is truly shocking is that, apparently, Rossellini strongly felt otherwise. In an interview conducted at Rice University, included as an extra in the Criterion release, Rossellini congratulates himself on what he regards as his innovation in providing a “human explanation” for the German officer. “He is not a mask, but a human being,” Rossellini insists. But that hardly fits the Bergmann presented on screen — he is all mask owing to his radical dehumanization. If all men are profoundly alike and have an innate striving toward the good, in Rossellini’s vision, then the German enemy perforce must be inhuman and simply evil.

Of course, no mention is made of the fact that this “enemy” was Italy’s ally mere months prior to the onset of filming the picture. The one scene that comes closest to acknowledging the issue at all is one in which Don Pietro and Pina are walking together. Pina asks how a supposedly loving God could allow such outsized suffering. Don Pietro claims that it is wrong to look to God here when man himself has brought this calamity down upon his own head through his iniquity and injustice. Notice that the priest neglects to blame the Italians as such. The war is set at the feet of humanity as a whole. The entirety of the world’s human population is to blame but despite their share in the culpability (certainly no greater share than the Allies implicitly) the Italians are here portrayed as victims, not the perpetrators of the catastrophic state of the world.

What is striking in retrospect is how successful this expiation campaign was — not just in the reception history of this film but with respect to the cultural reclamation of Italy in general after the war. As just one example, think of the great (or even the average and dull) US WWII films of the postwar error. They are filled with duplicitous Japanese and rapacious Germans, often portrayed in a manner not far removed from Rossellini’s crass take here — incited by some deep-seated unnatural savagery, incapable of human warmth and sympathy. It is far more difficult to think of such a film where the Italians are considered in the same light. Even films that depict the Italian campaign often feature the Germans as the main enemy. There is a strong consensus among historians that the Italian Resistance prior to the arrival of US troops was a rather trivial and underwhelming force against the Nazis (quite unlike the French Resistance) but one would never get that impression watching Rome Open City. What is disappointing is not that the film takes a point of view, nor even that it exaggerates or alters historical fact, but rather that it does so in such a disingenuous and tendentious manner.

Paisàn‘s Attempt at Balance Amidst Chaos

The best characters here have a kind of matter-of-fact fortitude, an acceptance of war’s depredations and life’s inequities, abnegation tempered by a quiet and somber goodwill.

Following the resounding international success of Rome Open City (the film didn’t do well in Italy until after it garnered foreign attention), Rossellini produced Paisàn. which carried his neorealist tendencies further. Indeed, Paisàn was considered by André Bazin to be the quintessential example of Italian neorealism. Indeed, in Bazin’s description, the film hit upon the perfect aesthetic approach to the simulacrum of reality: in using a low camera angle for the film’s sixth and final vignette Rossellini created, according to Bazin, “the exact equivalent, under conditions imposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon.” Thus, Rossellini’s camera is said not only to capture reality but to transmute it into something more than real, to get at the underlying conditions of that reality.


Dots Johnson and Alfonsino Pasca in Paisàn (1946)

Although Rome Open City is often exalted because of its use of non-actors, the film is actually anchored by quite accomplished actors (Magnani and Fabrizi, in particular). This is not the case with Paisàn, in which many (but still not all) of the characters are played by non-actors or (in the case of many of the Americans) student actors. There are times when the use of non-actors can create a sense of immediacy but it is not a given that such casting will have that effect. After all, nothing takes one out of a film faster, nothing seems more artificial, than ham-fisted acting and the flat delivery of dialogue. Paisàn, for my taste, oscillates between scenes and characters that work quite well and allow the viewer to become absorbed in the story, and other moments that are rather difficult to watch without feeling rather embarrassed by the ineptitude of the people onscreen.

Paisàn is an anthology of six short films that have no relation to each other aside from the fact that they loosely track the progress of the US troops from Sicily in the south toward the north of Italy. The (non-)actors, situations, characters, authors of the scripts, and even the directorial approach all change from story to story. All of the stories deal in some way with the difficulty of and urgency for communication between the American soldiers and the Italian citizens.

Some stories involve mutual suspicion, fear that the aims of the Italians and of the Americans may be at cross purposes. Some treat the futility of attempts ay communication across start linguistic borders. Others demonstrate that even when the protagonists share language communication may fail; too much changes too quickly, and the desires of yesterday swiftly transmute into regrets tomorrow while today passes with such celerity as to not matter at all. Many of the stories involve an unwitting indifference to the suffering of others, while a few showcase the callousness of concern grounded in prejudice. But at their heart, all of the stories drive home the point that the Americans and the Italians not only can but must come to an understanding, must find a way to bridge differences, must find a way to go on, to revivify a world turned moribund.

The Nazis are still the grotesque enemy, monstrous and inhumane, unworthy of our sympathy or even our understanding. They are a malevolent external force — featured as either unseen snipers or as a malignant plot device to prod the protagonists further in their attempts to communicate — a kind of diabolus ex machina, in you will. Nonetheless, Paisàn benefits from its turn away from Rome Open City’s fascination with victimhood toward a concern with its protagonists as active agents, striving toward some kind of equilibrium, some kind of balance amidst chaos. The best characters here have a kind of matter-of-fact fortitude, an acceptance of war’s depredations and life’s inequities, abnegation tempered by a quiet and somber goodwill. It approximates gallows humor but without the irony — a kind of living, nonchalant gallows humor.

In my opinion, the finest of the short films is the second. This vignette involves a black MP, Joe (Dots M. Johnson), wandering about Naples in a state of extreme inebriation. He comes across a small street urchin named Pasquale (Alfonsino Bovino), looking to scam the nearest sucker to earn enough money to buy some bread to eat. They barrel their way into a puppet show where Joe attempts to exercise his pugilistic skill against the marionettes. Eventually they find their way onto the top of a pile of rubble, one among many such piles. So much of the city is laid to waste beneath their feet.

Joe, in alcohol-fueled self-satisfaction, narrates his fantasy for a triumphant return home to the boy. He imagines he will be welcomed with a ticker tape parade, everyone calling his name in adulation. The bibulous bravado adumbrates those strangely melancholic drunks that populate the films of John Cassavetes — so self-assured, so convinced that they have some purchase upon truth, and yet writhe inwardly from the cognizance that they’re hypocrites, that the drink doesn’t make them special, it only masks how ordinary and dull they really are.

In the middle of it all, Joe breaks off and forlornly declares “I don’t want to go home.” He never specifies the reason for his reticence, but we can only imagine what a black soldier must realize he will face when returning to the country he risked his life to protect, a country indifferent to his needs and unwilling to accord him the designation of hero. Of course, all this is lost on the street urchin. He merely enjoys the outlandish theatricality of the performance. When he notices that Joe’s beginning to nod off, he straightforwardly informs soldier that if Joe should fall asleep, he will steal his shoes. Both characters are utterly willing to engage in total honesty, but that honesty is predicated upon the fact that the other cannot possibly understand.

The film cuts to the next scene and Joe apprehends Pasquale (at first not recognizing the boy as his companion from the other day) robbing supplies from a truck. Once Joe realizes that this was the urchin who stole his shoes, he demands their return, insists that Pasquale takes him to where the boy lives. But Pasquale and innumerable other survivors of war-torn Naples inhabit some caves in which they’ve put together ramshackle dwellings and carry out their meager existences. Joe is clearly appalled by the living conditions. He demands to know where are the boy’s parents are, to speak with them.

The boy replies, in a tone of voice that merely communicates information without any trace of emotion, that his parents were killed by Allied bombing. Not being sure if Joe understood his Italian, Pasquale mimes a plane flying overhead dropping bombs, delivering himself of the sound effects children employ in play. Pasquale’s flat demeanor, his emotional distance from the tragedy that has befallen him, his childlike penchant for playing at that which is beyond comprehension, is heartbreaking. Joe’s boozy and maudlin performance of a projected fantasy of rejection is now counteracted by an affectless yet wrenching statement of loss as the two of them stand amidst the squalor of the aftermath of war.

Indeed, the locations of their two conversations are striking. In both cases, the protagonists find themselves surrounded by the detritus of destruction. “Find themselves” is more than a mere locution here — they discover aspects of themselves and the other in these moments, they achieve a level of frank honesty and disclosure that would be all the more difficult if they shared a language. But Joe’s monologue plays out within the rubble of a public space — the seemingly glorious open space of war in its almost charismatic and ironically monumentally awesome presence. Pasquale’s revelation takes place in a very different environment, one cloistered, closed-off, and private — albeit a privacy overrun with other refugees, others seeking some modicum of normalcy in routine (many are engaged in laundry during that scene) when they can find none in their now estranged and uncanny homeland; the city in which they have lived all of their lives made strange and unfamiliar by being blasted apart.

In this fragile moment, the soldier realizes that this boy he sought to punish is standing on the precipice of his own demise joined by so many others all perched on their own precipice, waiting to fall or to be saved or to simply go on in this liminal wasteland. In that moment, we know communication has taken place, in part, because Joe flees the scene. Some things have to be told and have to be understood, even if they are too much to bear.

Germany Year Zero and the Matter of Guilt

It is an age-old trope to exalt the innocence of children, so deeply ingrained that we hardly ever stop to consider its validity.

The critical orthodoxy maintains that Rome Open City is the apex of the “War Trilogy”, reaching an early peak in quality and emotional penetration, while Paisàn exudes an unmatched integrity in its allegiance to neorealism. Some critics, most notably André Bazin, give pride of place to Paisàn for its resolution of the technical accommodation of the neorealist aesthetic—its refusal (for the most part—there is one flashback) to conform to typical film-narrative procedures, its insistence on an “as-it-really-was” documentarian approach to fiction. Germany Year Zero was almost universally disparaged and continues to be the least-discussed and certainly the least-lauded of the three.


Germany Year Zero (1948)

Some champions of Rossellini saw this film as a betrayal for its use of back-projection in the studio for some scenes instead of authentic location shooting. Bazin claimed it was not a movie but a sketch, a rough draft of a work Rossellini hasn’t given us”, responding no doubt to the film’s concentrated running time of just over seventy minutes. Bosley Crowther (a former New York Times critic with whom I so rarely agree that I use his negative critiques as recommendations for films I should endeavor to view) proclaimed Germany Year Zero was imbued with “a strange emptiness of genuine feeling.” German critics felt the film cast its postwar citizens in a profoundly bleak and negative light and screenings were rare.

I cannot help but feel, however, that it is not some kind of misguided perversity that leads me to declare along with Charlie Chaplin (one of the film’s few vocal defenders) that not only is Germany Year Zero superior to the other constituent members of the “War Trilogy” but, more importantly and more grandly, it is, in Chaplin’s words, “the most beautiful Italian film” I have ever seen. Unlike Rome Open City and Paisàn, which assume that suffering is unquestionably ennobling and that victimhood expiates all sins, Germany Year Zero takes seriously the issue of guilt. Perhaps this is because, like in the other films, Rossellini seems to see only the Germans as being guilty. But in this film, guilt seems to be posited (at least in my understanding of it) as a universal concern and perhaps bound up in the very universality of victimhood that is supposed (in the other two films) to wash all of us clean. Victimhood in this film does not obviate guilt, it is shot through with guilt; guilt is the knowledge from which we suffer, the knowledge of our complicity in our victimhood, the awareness that there is no and can be no innocence. We are all tainted from the outset. Germany Year Zero is the finest secular contemplation of original sin ever set to film.

Perhaps, then, Rossellini was not the greatest advocate for his own film. In the card of text that opens the Italian version of the film (included as an extra in the Criterion edition), Rossellini asserts: “When ideologies stray from the eternal laws of morality and Christian piety, which are the basis of the life of men, they end by becoming criminal madness. Even the prudence of childhood becomes contaminated and led from one horrendous crime to another no less serious, through which, with the ingenuity proper to innocence, it believes it has found a freedom from guilt.”

This strikes me as more exculpation through the excoriation of others. The Germans are the originators of the evil ideology and now the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. And so, in the light of this framing device, Edmund Koehler’s (Edmund Meschke) heinous bid to restore order to his family through the murder of his father (Ernst Pittschau) is a peculiarly German transgression, made possible and perhaps necessary as the wages of outrageous national sin.

Without that framing device, as in the original German-language version, Germany Year Zero is a far different and superior film, a film of genius and depth of feeling (which makes one wonder whether “genius,” whatever it may be, is properly considered intentional). Edmund is not an innocent but not because he is German. Pasquale (of Paisàn) was not an innocent either. Nor do I believe that these children lack innocence because they are caught up in the ravages of war—which, by the way, is just another way of saying they are not culpable for their crimes (murder, theft) and thus still, on some level, innocent.

What I think this film so brilliantly punctures is the very myth of childhood innocence (despite Rossellini’s asseverations to the contrary). It is an age-old trope to exalt the innocence of children, so deeply ingrained that we hardly ever stop to consider its validity. Now, of course, no one can seriously claim that babies are “guilty” but neither are they “innocent”. We cannot claim that someone is innocent unless that person has the ability to make ethical decisions. Babies are as incapable of this as a stone and no one deigns to expound upon the innocence of a stone.

To make an ethical decision requires, at the minimum, two things: 1. the ability to reason; 2. a basic social awareness. If, like a baby or a stone, I cannot be expected to think rationally, then I cannot be held accountable on an ethical level (note that I do not write that I am not accountable merely if I don’t act rationally — that is a choice; the question here is whether or not I can be expected to choose rationally and reasonably). Moreover, if I were accountable only to myself (say in a radical “state of nature”), then all sorts of socially abhorrent actions would be reasonable for my survival and well-being. Ethics, in the sense in which we generally use the term, requires a social understanding. To behave ethically is to accommodate, in some manner, the body politic. Despite what we might like to believe, there are no “personal ethics” — that is a contradiction in terms.

Children (certainly 13-year-olds such as Edmund) have attained some purchase on both of these requirements. While their rational capacity is still being developed, they have a sense of right and wrong (without which guilt would not even be an issue) and, as the character of Edmund demonstrates so viscerally, children have a keen awareness of social expectations and the implicit demands of the Other. Now, in one sense, this already disqualifies children from the status of the innocent — that they know right from wrong removes them from the realm of innocence, it is to have some glimmering awareness of the other side (after all, it was eating from the Tree of Knowledge that made Adam and Eve guilty; it was their knowledge of sin that made them culpable, not their innocent stumbling upon a transgression through the misdirection of Satan). So, by the first criterion (having rational thought), children cannot be said to be innocent.

But more damning, perhaps, is the second criterion: having a social understanding. This is the secular version of the doctrine of original sin. Edmund didn’t invent the social situation into which he was thrown. He certainly didn’t formulate the misappropriated bit of Nietzsche (the strong must have the strength to allow the weak to perish) proffered by Edmund’s former teacher, the pederast Henning (Erich Gühne). In a very real sense, he inherits his social situation, with all of its sickening paradoxes and compromises and distortions, and has no choice but to act upon them.

But here is the crucial point: that doesn’t absolve him of guilt. Indeed, the guilt is built in from the beginning, regardless of his actual actions (this is what I mean by a secular version of the doctrine of original sin). The fact that the Other demands something from him is the source of guilt, for there is no way for any of us (much less a child) to live up to that demand. The veneer of innocence is something we foist upon children to make us feel better about ourselves — to pretend that we once came from a clean and pure place, that what happened to us was not because of what we were but because of what the world does to us as we become adults.

But the world is not distinct from us and we are not distinct from it. As soon as we are socialized (as soon as we start to speak, to recognize what gestures mean, to see the significance of a smile or a frown), we are complicit with the state of the world. Rossellini’s great strength in this film (despite his adherence to the myth of childhood innocence apparent in his opening text) is that he is able to show the compromised nature of childhood without making it appear to be some violation of the nature of things. Here a (male) child refers to another (female) child as a “mattress that dispenses cigarettes”; children engage in scams, deceptions, betrayals, and even murder.

Edmund is not evil and he is not depraved. He commits an atrocity, but it is an atrocity arrived at through a rational decision. As awful as it is, Edmund made an ethical choice—one we cannot and should not accept and one that, ultimately, he is unable to live with. What makes this film so moving and so compelling is its willingness not to condemn Edmund (which is what makes the condemnation in the opening placard so disappointing) but rather to understand him, to follow his choice, to acknowledge his guilt (as he himself does in the most harrowing manner) but also to accept his human frailty. After all, he is hardly the only one to fall short in an ethical account. Who among us has not faced the demand of the Other and blanched?

* * *

Criterion Collection has just released a Blu-ray edition of Roberto Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” in a restoration that makes these films look better than I have ever seen them. In fact, Rome Open City is so gorgeously reproduced that it gives the lie to some of the critical orthodoxy surrounding the film’s degraded stock as part of its neorealist aesthetic. The edition boasts a plethora of extras, far too many to list in full. These include introductions to the films by Rossellini himself, interviews and discussions with Rossellini at Rice University from 1970, a very fine audio commentary to Rome Open City by the scholar Peter Bondanella, various documentaries on the films and Rossellini himself, and many others — including a packed booklet with two excellent essays and two underwhelming ones.