The story of a small boy, Edmund, and his struggle for existence amidst the desolate ruins of Berlin. Edmund has to compete with those who are older and more experienced in the fight for survival. He lacks any firm standards and seeks a guide to conduct in the words and actions of others. Despite his pitiful efforts he becomes a plaything of chance operating through his environment and the other creatures that belong to it. He kills his father to relieve his family of a burden, and finds himself an outcast from all his companions. His last desperate effort to control his own life is to commit suicide.
Roberto Rossellini began his film career in Italy before the war making newsreels and short documentaries. Between 1941 and 1943 he directed his first feature films, three rather undistinguished war films. In 1945 he made the first film in which he had charge of production, direction, scripting, and editing: Roma Citta A perta (Open City). It was an immediate success in America and England and was followed in 194.6 by the less popular Paisa (Poison). In 1947 he went to Berlin to make Germania Anno Zero.
His method was to choose his actors for the scene and to devise episodes to fit the scene. He worked without script, with one film writer (Lizzani) to suggest episodes and treatments as the film proceeded, arid another (Kolpet) to devise the German dialogue. He demands the same freedom as Flaherty, but unlike Flaherty he concentrates on telling a story and presenting an opinion.
Because he uses no script his stories are all episodic in form, and Paisa even became a series of unconnected stories. In Rossellini's hands this is a hit-and-miss method and gives films of uneven quality. The virtue of any of his films, then, must lie not in its total impression, but in the stature of some particular episode or episodes.
In Germania Anna Zero the part that gives greatness to the film is the final episode. The episodes that precede it give credulity and insight into the child's life so that when Edmund finds himself rejected of all men we accept and understand his position. In a towering sequence the boy wanders through the ruined streets of the city lapsing momentarily into the games of childhood that have been denied him and emerging in despair and exasperation as the futility of them and of all his actions is borne upon him by his savage and pitiless surroundings. In a trance of misery and desolation he slowly climbs to the top of a ruined building. All this the camera observes coldly and dispassionately. Then, with a characteristic camera movement of withdrawing into extreme long-shot, the boy jumps. A shabby tram trundles past and we leave with it.