Amid the rubble of postwar Germany, a 12-year-old boy named Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is hired to dig graves at a cemetery, then is chased away when he is unable to produce his work permit. It is Year Zero – the beginning of a divided Germany – and the country is faced with an uncertain future of food rations, energy shortages, and an unstable economy. On the way home, Edmund encounters a crowd hovering over a dead horse, and is brushed aside by a policeman after asking for a portion of the horse meat. Without hesitation, Edmund then walks towards his next opportunity, as a slow-moving coal truck traverses the street, and Edmund immediately picks up the fallen pieces of coal. He returns home to a small room in a war-ravaged apartment building, where he lives with his invalid father (Ernst Pittschau), his resourceful sister, Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), and his cowardly brother Karl-Heinz (Franz Kruger). Fearing prosecution for war crimes as a Nazi soldier, Karl-Heinz refuses to register with the police in order to qualify for a work permit and social services, and the family is forced to subsist on three ration cards. Meanwhile, Eva, unable to find work, spends every evening escorting Allied soldiers at dance halls, where she receives a handful of cigarettes to be used for bartering goods and services. One day, while wandering the streets, Edmund meets his former school teacher, Mr. Henning (Eric Guehne), an inscrutable and discredited intellectual who profits from the sale of Nazi propaganda. Mr. Henning takes interest in young Edmund, and puts him to work with a group of young, disaffected vagrants. Inevitably, as Edmund becomes consumed by the despair and cruelty of his devastated environment, he drifts further away from the support and moral guidance of his family.
Arguably the most harrowing and nihilistic installment of Roberto Rossellini’s Trilogy of War, Germany, Year Zero is a caustic portrait of dehumanization and social disintegration. Filmed soon after the unexpected death of Rossellini’s young son, Romano, in 1946, the protagonist, Edmund, becomes a tragic symbol of national guilt and personal pain: the embodiment of lost innocence; the uncertainty of profound change; the guilt of survival; the seeming hopelessness of the future. In essence, the repeated image of Edmund wandering through the devastated wasteland of postwar Berlin reflects, not only the unreconciled spirit of the German people, but also Rosselini’s own attempt to come to terms with his own loss. Inevitably, like the aimless Edmund, Rossellini, too, searches for an elusive meaning to an inconsolable tragedy.
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