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

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

“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.

Germany Year Zero

Director: Roberto Rossellini
Distributor: Criterion Collection
US release date: 2017-07-11

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.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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