A building will tell you a lot about its builder—the conventions of his time, his wealth, his hubris. As architect Julia Morgan said, “Buildings speak for themselves.” Ruins, however, speak for all of us. And they’re monotonous. They’re always saying the same thing: Nothing endures. Nature can be tamed for only a brief period of time. Permanence is an illusion. We look at ruins and sigh. Then we start building again.
No director in film history has made more of rubble than Roberto Rossellini. There are few buildings that aren’t collapsed, or at least structurally unsound, in the three films of his War Trilogy—Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero—which the Criterion Collection has just released as a box set. Rossellini’s broken buildings come to stand for broken political theories, a broken social order, broken morality, broken people. Rossellini was not always an attentive director of actors, and he cast amateurs and friends in many of the major roles of the trilogy. But his graphic depiction of shattered, war-torn cities helps the viewer to empathize with his characters’ overwhelming sense of dislocation and despair. They’re half-dead, but the ruins are alive.
Rome Open City is the famous film of the group, the clarion call of the Italian Neorealism movement. Using real locations and film stock cadged on the black market, Rossellini broke dramatically from the grandiose historical epics and escapist romantic comedies that stultified viewers throughout the Fascist era. Yet it is the least visually inventive of the three films, shot mostly indoors, with relatively stationary camerawork. Watching it now, especially on a television, it’s easy to empathize with the plight of the resistance fighters who are the film’s main characters. The screen feels as claustrophobic as the cramped apartments, jail cells, and interrogation rooms in which so much of the action takes place.
There are notable exceptions. The film’s two iconic scenes—the sudden death of Pina (Anna Magnani), gunned down in the street while chasing after her captured lover, and the point-blank execution of Aldo Fabrizi’s parish priest—take place in wide-open spaces, in broad daylight. A third street scene, early on, establishes the mood of moral ambivalence that suffuses the film. The pregnant, exhausted Pina is walking home from the bread line, escorted by a Fascist police officer. Pina, whose fiance is a Communist resistance fighter, is no friend of the Fascists, but the cop is so pathetic that she can’t help but pity him:
When Pina says that it looks like the Americans are coming, Rossellini cuts to a shot of an apartment building across the street, half-obliterated by a bomb. Both characters are desperate for the war to end, for the Americans to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Yet their hope is tempered by the knowledge that, should the Americans come, there will be more bombs, more fighting, more death. The broken building stands as a fair warning, an omen for what is to come.
The wages of war are more visible in Paisan, which is shot mostly outdoors, in the pulverized cities of Naples, Florence, and Rome, where tanks roll past ruins both modern and ancient. As in Rome Open City, hope of salvation is revealed to be little more than a delusion, a fairy tale Rossellini’s characters tell themselves so they can endure hell for another day. When the film begins, the Americans are surging through Italy, but they’re much too late. Something irretrievable has been lost, and the liberators are greeted with apathy and even, at times, malice.
In the Sicily sequence, a battalion of American soldiers creep along the shore at night, where they encounter the ruins of an ancient castle, perched on the edge of a cliff. Shot from below, the building looms in the fog like a haunted house. “Some joint,” says the commanding officer. “Hey, junior, remember Frankenstein? This reminds me of the old mill.” But it’s unoccupied, so one of the soldiers is assigned to set up base with an Italian peasant girl who has been serving as their guide. Neither the soldier (who introduces himself as “Joe from Jersey”) nor the woman, Carmela, speak each other’s language, and at first any prospect of camaraderie seems unlikely. “You men with guns are all the same,” says Carmela. But Joe is persistent. Relying on childish gestures and pantomime, he manages to make himself understood. Before long, they’re sitting together in a window overlooking the sea, and make wishes on shooting stars. Joe flicks on his lighter to show Carmela a photograph of his sister—and then crumples over. A German sniper, spotting the flame in his binoculars, has fired off a round.
By the time the sniper and his cohorts get there, Joe is dead, and the castle sinks back into the shadows, a house of horrors once again. “I could get romantic here,” jeers the sniper, unwittingly mocking the scene his bullet disrupted only minutes earlier. The notion of romance now seems ludicrous, as the castle is transformed into a dank warren of tunnels and caves. For Carmela, awaiting capture, it has become a prison; for Joe, a tomb.
Germany Year Zero’sterrifying depiction of psychological torment makes it the most powerful and disturbing film of the three. Shot in Berlin in 1946, the film is dedicated to Rossellini’s eldest son, Romano, who died before filming began (ruptured appendix). It is the story of the final days of an angelic 15-year-old German boy named Edmund. His family torn apart by the war, his childhood violently truncated, Edmund has little to do but spend his days wandering through the wasteland of postwar Berlin.
To earn money for his starving family, he tries to pawn an old recording of Hitler’s speeches to two Allied soldiers. When he plays the record on a wind-up Victrola, Hitler’s voice rings out—“German people, set your hearts at rest! We shall overcome! Victory awaits us in the end!”—while Rossellini pans over rows of demolished buildings and the crumbled Reich Chancellery. An old man walking through the rubble with his son seizes up in surprise, as if he’s heard a ghost. And he has. Hitler may be gone, but his spirit stalks the flattened city.
In Germany Year Zero Rossellini goes even further than before in his depiction of devastation. The camera brings the piles of debris into close focus, laying bare each loose brick and warped pipe, as if to expose the inner workings of a deranged mind. As Edmund becomes increasingly tormented, he shuts off, goes mute. The images of Berlin speak for him. He spends more and more time in the streets, gamboling through a ruined landscape that has become a physical representation of the damage inside him.
At one point during the grotesque final sequence, he wanders into an abandoned building. A piece of rubble attracts his attention. He picks it up and wipes it off. It looks, to him, like a gun. He fingers the trigger, raises it to his head, and fires.