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Archive for September 7th, 2015

edmund

by Stephen Mullen

War films often use children as protagonists – we’ve seen several in this countdown already (Come and See, Empire of the Sun, The Tin Drum, among others), with more to come surely. There are many reasons for this – I think those reasons add up to to the fact that the plight of children, of childhood, in wartime brings the horror of war into very sharp focus. Children in war films may be victims, they may be corrupted, may become (or be) evil, or at least hard-boiled, they may not seem to understand the nature of war, may not seem to treat it as completely real – but however they act, or are affected by the war, they reveal its nature through what it makes them. Children are new people – they are pliable, in the process of being formed – and what war turns them into shows us what war is. (And this, in turn, is why so many great films about childhood seem to be war films – because childhood is about becoming what you will be, and war heightens that, the way childhood heighten the effects of war. And maybe because childhood isn’t necessarily as innocent, pleasant, secure as we wish it were – children in war become hyperbolic versions of childhood in any difficult situation.) Beyond this, children in war films draw the viewer in – child protagonists are often in the position of the viewer, having to learn about their world as they move through it. And maybe most of all – whatever a child might do in a war film, we know the child did not cause the war. Children are always acted on by the war, no matter how active they are – adults in warfare raise questions of responsibility that children can sidestep.

In Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, his protagonist, Edmund, does all these things. He is innocent, good natured and trusting – but also corrupted, even before the film started (with his Nazi education), and is led to more and more compromised actions that culminate in murder. He is formed by the war, and by the horrific aftermath of the war – learning from it, made what he is by it. And he is our guide to the world of the film, Berlin after the war. This is quite literal – the camera often follows him through the streets, watching him in his environment, showing us the city and what happens there. He guides us through many encounters, vignettes of suffering and cruelty, in the streets and at home. At the same time, though, he is not just guide but quester – searching for food, searching (quite explicitly – Rossellini’s symbolism and ideas aren’t subtle here) for meaning, what the war meant, what he is, what life means for himself and others now that the war is over. He is both Virgil and Dante in the inferno of ruined Berlin – and one of the damned souls as well, a ghost in a ghost of a city. (more…)

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