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Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy

by Glenn Erickson Jun 19, 2017

DVD SAVANT

Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero: Filmed mostly on the streets in newly-liberated territory, Roberto Rossellini’s gripping war-related shows are blessed with new restorations but still reflect their rough origins. The second picture, the greater masterpiece, looks as if it were improvised out of sheer artistic will.


Roberto Rosselini’s War Trilogy
Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 500 (497, 498, 499)
1945-1948 / B&W / 1:37 & 1:33 flat full frame / 302 minutes / Street Date July 11, 2017 / available from the Criterion Collection 79.96
Starring: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani; Dots Johnson, Harriet White Medin; Edmund Moeschke, Franz-Otto Krüger.
Cinematography: Ubaldo Arata; Otello Martelli; Robert Julliard.
Film Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Original Music: Renzo Rossellini
Written by Sergio Amidei, Alberto Consiglio, Federico Fellini; Klaus Mann, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes, Vasco Pratolini; Max Kolpé, Carlo Lizzani.
Directed by
Roberto Rossellini

 

Criterion released an identical-for-content DVD set of this trilogy in 2010; the new Blu-ray is for those who missed it or those that will appreciate the boost in quality from a restoration that was performed in the interim.

In college these were legendary pictures, probably because Italian Neorealism was the first foreign film movement most of us were exposed to in any great depth. To students wondering what could be done about the Cambodia invasion, films recounting episodes of WW2 as it ground its way up the Italian mainland seemed very relevant. For us pampered kids of the 1950s and 1960s the hardships suffered by Europeans seemed unimaginable. The prints we could see of Paisan were of especially poor quality.

It was the summer of 1974 at UCLA, and I was taking Italian One in an attempt to cover at least some of my graduation requirements. That made me feel even more connected to the final episode of Paisan, in which a few American commandos have been plunked down in harm’s way to help organize the resistance. More or less abandoned by their superiors, they’re fighting a losing battle in a muddy marsh. A ragged Yank officer turns to a couple of partisans and gives an order in sloppy pig-Italian:

“Two and Two veneeray con may!”

Nobody laughs, because it’s essential communication between men that know too well that they may not survive the day. I’ve always been struck by the lack of choices experienced by some of my father’s generation, who fought basically to help people far away. My main concern was maintaining my student deferment, to stay away from Vietnam.

We were taught that Rossellini’s three pictures were made under terrible hardships, and that some of Rome Open City was filmed while the Germans still occupied the city. That claim is a little strained, as all three pictures are obviously professionally produced. Even Roma makes use of studio sets, many scenes are filmed in plain view on city streets. The third picture was filmed in Berlin, and also transported its German cast to Rome, for interior scenes.

The pictures vary greatly in tone. The first is unabashedly melodramatic, a cry of outrage against the Tedeschi occupiers. The second is an episodic epic that ranges from tragedy to light comedy, and doesn’t shy away from one of the bleakest finales in film history. The third is as negative a statement as was made about the plight of civilians in defeated Germany. The trilogy made a big impact on film culture the world ’round — Paisan is the picture that motivated Ingrid Bergman to simply quit Hollywood to chase a romantic-artistic dream with Roberto Rossellini.

Neorealism wasn’t guerilla filmmaking, or the work of radical extremists. Roberto Rossellini nor Vittorio De Sica worked in the Italian cinema mainstream. Future director Federico Fellini was at this time a screenwriter and occasional actor. None were part of the resistance, at least not in their day jobs. Previously a director of short subjects and studio features (some with pro-fascist themes), Rossellini received instantaneous international acclaim when he took his first two films to Paris. Their arrival in New York came just as new art film theaters began to spring up; the term Italian Neorealism may have been the first new film-cult buzzword coined by the film-culture coffee-klatch society.

Only then was Rossellini’s work recognized in his home country, as a kind of weary national epic. The third film sees the director turning his humanitarian concern to the home front of the defeated enemy, or better, the defeated former ally. The Blu-ray of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy is a welcome release, as quality presentations of these films have long eluded collectors.


A powerful drama of Nazi oppression, Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta) is Neorealist in spirit and appearance. The depiction of fascist Italian police helping German troops arrest civilians must have been a shock to Roman audiences just free of five years under wartime misery and twenty-five under fascist rule. The film’s unpolished, gritty look is partly attributable to the mismatched film stock that was used — we were told that some of it was stolen from American newsreel cameramen.

Rossellini employed German prisoners to play ‘themselves’ but filled only a few speaking parts with non-professionals. The two most important roles went to well-known film personalities associated with comedy. Legends about Rossellini filming secretly while Rome was still occupied are not true. The director says that filming began as soon as the city was liberated; others report that the start of production was in January of 1945, half a year later.

The script acknowledges the role of fascist collaborators in the arrest and torture of the mostly communist resistance. The German villains are portrayed much like their counterparts in Hollywood’s anti-Nazi films. The SS commandant is determined to arrest resistance leader Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero). Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), a predatory lesbian agent in the pay of the SS, has located Manfredi’s girlfriend Marina (Maria Michi), a dissolute Italian showgirl. Ingrid plies the thoughtless Marina with cocaine and expensive furs. The ensuing wave of arrests swallows up the film’s romantic working couple, Pina and Francesco (Anna Magnani & Francesco Grandjacquet). She’s a widow pregnant with Francesco’s child and preparing for her wedding day; warm-hearted priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) has agreed to give them a church wedding. Pina’s son Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) belongs to a gang of pre-teen saboteurs. Marina’s betrayal results in grief for the apolitical Pina as well as the active resistance partisans.

 

Open City is traditionally structured and scripted. Actors recite fairly crude position speeches, as when the anguished Don Pietro curses the Germans: cue audience approval. Much of the content is unexpectedly brutal. A drunken German officer pointedly condemns his superior’s vile methods, already shown in a graphic torture scene. In one shot a man’s chest, scorched with a blowtorch, actually burns for a second. The movie spells out how easily the corrupt Marina is manipulated; she is said to be the first overt drug addict in an Italian movie. The perverse Ingrid is rewarded with money and sex. Rossellini expresses his country’s mixed feelings toward the U.S. with a sly aside: when asked if the Americans really exist, Anna Magnani’s Pina points to a bombed building.


Rossellini’s most pure Neorealist movie is the impassioned, bleak Paisan (Paisà), a collection of character sketches that follow the Allied advance northward from Sicily. Many of the performers are first-time actors. Each freestanding little drama ends on a note of irony, if not outright tragedy, although one chapter in a monastery is lighter in tone. Between each episode is a buffer montage of newsreel footage of the fighting and devastation. Voices are all post-dubbed. The audio track often makes only a rough attempt to match words to lip movements, even in this restored presentation.

Paisan seems more authentic feel than Open City. The loose form offers a variety of viewpoints and the moral lessons are often conveyed through visuals. Each episode carries a potent emotional kick. Americans landing in Sicily enlist a frightened young woman (Carmela Sazio) as a guide. As far from white-telephone glamour as a character could be, she barely comprehends what’s going on.

Screenwriters Sergio Amedei and Federico Fellini advance each story just far enough to hit an emotional nerve, without spilling over into outright sentiment. One unforgettable episode, the one most frequently excerpted, shows a black G.I. in Naples (Dots Johnson) chasing down a scavenging local kid who has stolen his shoes. Presumably not from a privileged background in the states, the G.I. is nevertheless appalled when he sees how the dispossessed are living in the bombed-out city.

Harriet White Medin, later of Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda fame.

Some of the episodes involve misunderstandings between the Italians and their liberators. Actress Maria Michi returns for a romantic piece set in Rome about a young woman who has turned to prostitution. Future horror film favorite Harriet White Medin, a USO performer who jumped ship to join Rossellini’s movie troupe, plays a daring American nurse who crosses enemy lines in Florence to reunite with a resistance leader. The young Giulieta Masina (The Nights of Cabiria) makes a brief appearance in a scene on a stairwell. William Tubbs (The Wages of Fear) is a chaplain who tries to explain his tolerance of Protestants and Jews to a group of Catholic monks.

Paisan concludes with an uncompromising look at guerilla warfare. American OSS agents and Italian partisans fight a losing skirmish against Germans in the Po Valley, a marshland with few hiding places. The American officers use crude Italian to communicate with their comrades. Rossellini pushes the episode forward without sentiment or fancy camerawork. The underdog raiders are soon routed. The bleak finale, contrasted with a voiceover announcing the soon-to-come victory, puts glamorous depictions of war to shame.


Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero) sees Rossellini capping his trilogy with a story from the enemy’s point of view. The result is a much more obvious message movie about the social hell in the ruins of defeated Berlin, a city of survivalists that routinely cheat each other as they look out for their own interests. Caught in the war’s aftermath is 12-year-old Edmund (Edmund Meschke), a small boy trying to help his family and finding frustration, cruelty and disapproval in all directions. His sick father can’t work so Edmund tries unsuccessfully to fit into the black-market netherworld of have-nots, thieves and scammers. Unfortunately, Edmund falls under the influence of his ex- teacher, a bitter Aryan-supremacist philosopher (and pedophile) who fills the boy’s head with the fatalistic idea that the weak (like Edmund’s father) must be killed to make room for the strong. Cheated and misled, Edmund takes some tragic actions.

Filmed in utterly bleak German ruins, Germany Year Zero is the purest statement of the three pictures. Edmund tries to sell a bathroom scale, but a wealthy man in a car more or less steals it from him. Edmund’s sister is encouraged by friends to turn to prostitution. A key scene is another forbidden black market transaction. Edmund tries to sell a phonograph record of a Hitler speech to some occupation soldiers. They sneak into a ruined church to play it; other visitors listen while Hitler’s angry words echo in the empty spaces. In just a few seconds Rossellini communicates the notion of a city haunted by political horror, and suggests that it won’t take much to bring it back.

Because it manages little relief from its one note of despair, the third film was not an audience favorite. Rossellini’s profoundly negative ending is also far too easy to predict. The tragedy of little Edmund makes an interesting comparison with Fred Zinnemann’s superficially similar, more openly sentimental The Search. Both films are blunt about the effects of the war on children.


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Roberto Rosselini’s War Trilogy comes from a new restoration, but that doesn’t mean that the films now look brand-new. We are told that Roma and Paisan had plenty of technical deficiencies even when first shown. Roma has clearer images now, possibly from an earlier- generation source with less damage. Paisan’s episodes look great, but the transitional newsreel sections connecting them are still badly worn. They may have always looked that way. All three pictures have fewer instances of frame damage. Germany Year Zero still appears in its German version, and now looks much better as well.

Audio is cleaner overall, with less hiss. The wobbly sync can be distracting at times, as is some of the dialogue dubbed for the actors playing Americans – the dialogue sounds too much like translations of an Italian script. I looked for but did not catch a jump cut that I once noted in Paisan, in the middle of a speech about religious tolerance. The missing words may be restored, but I’m not certain.

 

Disc producers Johanna Schiller and Jason Altman have assembled a mountain of fascinating extras. None are listed as new, at least that I can tell. Among the many associates and experts contributing to the new interview pieces is Roberto Rossellini’s daughter Isabella. Filmed interviews with spouse Ingrid Bergman illuminate the director’s fascinating career, through the 1950s to his concentration on television projects in his later years.

Introductions by the director accompany each film; they’re from a 1965 French TV presentation. Roma carries a commentary by Peter Bondanella. In addition to the lengthy documentaries Once Upon a time … (2006) and Roberto Rossellini (Carlo Lizzani, 2001), shorter featurettes cover Rossellini’s Rome locations and offer visual essays by Tag Gallagher and Thomas Meder. A videotaped lecture and a podium discussion are also included, as well as an Italian credit sequence for Germany Year Zero.

The set definitely does not lack for expert critical comment and opinion. A 44-page insert booklet has essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Seeing the films before sampling the extras is a recommended choice, as the video pieces are loaded with visual spoilers. The most famous shot from Rome Open City must be repeated five times in various featurettes.

This Trilogy set dovetails nicely with Criterion’s exhaustively researched Blu-ray set that picks up a couple of films forward, 3 Films By Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman. I wish I could have shared all of these treasures with my mother, who was a big fan of Ingrid Bergman. . . the pictures might have helped to establish some common ground between us, politically speaking.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Roberto Rosselini’s War Trilogy Blu-ray
rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Good (and much improved)
Sound: Good (ditto)
Supplements: Introductions by director Roberto Rossellini from 1963; Interviews from 2009 with scholar Adriano Aprà, critic and Rossellini friend Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, and filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani; Audio commentary on Rome Open City by scholar Peter Bondanella; Once Upon a Time . . . “Rome Open City,” a 2006 documentary on the making of the historic film; Rossellini and the City, a 2009 video essay by film scholar Mark Shiel on Rossellini’s use of the urban landscape in The War Trilogy; Excerpts from discussions Rossellini had in 1970 with faculty and students at Rice University about his craft Into the Future, a 2009 video essay about The War Trilogy by scholar Tag Gallagher; Roberto Rossellini, a 2001 documentary by Carlo Lizzani, assistant director on Germany Year Zero, tracing Rossellini’s career through archival footage and interviews with family members and collaborators, with tributes by filmmakers François Truffaut and Martin Scorsese; Letters from the Front: Carlo Lizzani on “Germany Year Zero,” a discussion with Lizzani from the 1987 Tutto Rossellini conference; Italian credits and prologue for Germany Year Zero; Roberto and Roswitha, a 2009 illustrated essay by scholar Thomas Meder on Rossellini’s relationship with Roswitha Schmidt. Illustrated booklet featuring essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 18, 2017
(5448ross)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.