Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy

Studio: Criterion

Jul 12, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The Italian director, Robert Rossellini, had made a few films in the early 1940s that, together, were unofficially known as the “Fascist Trilogy.” Containing The White Ship, A Pilot Returns, and The Man with a Cross, the films would be, beyond his earlier work in propaganda, the first times he would dip his toes into the world of neorealism. His use of nonprofessional actors and tendency to imbue his work with documentary-like footage gave the films, which focused on stories of soldiers in Ukraine, an Italian soldier in a prisoner of war camp, and a sailor sent off to war. This earlier work was allowed to revel in the dramatic, even the melodramatic, where people’s relationships were rendered on the screen as life changing, especially if they were torn apart. Yet as he moved closer to setting his eye on the everyday lived realities of people, he would use that to inform, and develop, the next trio of films, which had been known as the “Neorealistic Trilogy.” Even in the “more” melodramatic Rome, Open City, the films across the board, with Paisan and Germany, Year Zero are works in which every piece of rubble is a piece of history, textured and remarkable in how it has become part of the landscape, evidence of national trauma. It’s funny that the three films, billed by The Criterion Collection as the War Trilogy, has Rossellini’s name as authorial owner. It feels like a double edged sword.

It is without a doubt that Rossellini had an incredible amount of control on the sets of the War Trilogy, and that his experience working in propaganda and testing out neorealist techniques heavily informed his approach to these films. Certainly setting his camera directly in the ruins, turning the ravaged buildings into things within a frame, is his. But they’re not his alone. In the episodic Paisan, Rossellini not only blends narrative filmmaking with documentary approach, but almost gives up a certain amount of authorial control. Watching a young woman walk across the screen in a church in Rome, Open City, it is she who has control, directing the viewer where to look and what information will be revealed. Rossellini seems content to be there to tag along, as enraptured by his cast of nonprofessionals as anyone in the audience.

In interviews, Rossellini said he would rewrite his screenplays that better reflected a performer’s background and feelings, and he would keep intact whatever regional idiosyncrasies were present (accent, clothing, etc.) This method of filmmaking makes the War Trilogy feel even less like the Italian director’s lone effort, especially as the works in trilogy were both a working through of and a response to the trauma of World War II. But his inclination to shoot “what was there,” to paraphrase, didn’t stop him from artistic drive. Artifice still existed in something like Rome, Open City, but whatever sets and props he may have used never really strips the film of its power nor of its ability to approach the horror and hope of war torn Italy. As recounted by James Quandt in his essay for the box set, “Myth and Manipulation”, Rossellini saw “neorealism” as a “moral attitude,” less attached to some sort of restricted notion of the term. Even in its artifice, there’s an underlying impression, as he makes his way through dilapidated rooms, roads that no longer look like they lead to anywhere, and through the holes left in buildings, the films are not just his own anymore. They are the city’s, of wherever the film takes place, and of the people’s, and perhaps of the nation’s.

Even in Germany, Year Zero, the films are never nationalist, but rather their authenticity is a way to better embed these films in the history of Italy and Germany, and in the skin of the narrative of World War II. As Edmund walks around a Berlin that is a shell of its former self, what’s left of the city, in its flaws and ruined beauty, feel electric. It’s Edmund’s film, and Berlin’s, and Rossellini’s. By focusing on the implications of how war can make all of us an author through trauma, Rossellini lets his subjects spin their own narratives. It’s as much their work as it is, should the box with its sharp typography be believed, Rossellini’s War Trilogy.  

www.criterion.com/boxsets/689-roberto-rossellini-s-war-trilogy




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