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Some Kind of Realism: Rossellini's War Trilogy

Above: Germany Year Zero.  Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Many of the extras (interviews, visual essays) included in this Criterion DVD set are more or less standard, which is not to say unappreciated.  Carlo Lizzani’s documentary on Rossellini’s career, to its credit, mentions such rarely discussed Rossellini titles as Giovanna d’arc al rogo (1954).  It also speeds through the last 15 years of Rossellini’s career, conceiving of the historical telefilms as a bit of a homogeneous mass.  This fate is both understandable and unfortunate; however, Lizzani’s doc typifies the “macro” bias that underscores so much Great Men commentary—which coincides a bit with DVD commentary.  We understand the broad thematic outlines of Rossellini’s career, and of course for those first treading into these waters the material is useful.  But for DVD extras to claim their own longevity, to be more than one-time, two-time digital curiosities, we want them to hold their own , don’t we?  A critical edition of a book, for example, isn’t usually loaded with brief and overlapping biographical-thematic sketches.  No—ideally we find a series of meatier investigations, perhaps shaped into a comprehensible discourse, whose ideas we can revisit continually.  The “extras” and the main object mutually reinforce one another; when they’re good they can churn out interesting or provocative material of a caliber not easily exhausted.

But I fear I’m sounding harsher on Criterion than I want to be, for the sake of clarifying my rhetorical point.  Before I continue, let me say that “Rossellini’s War Trilogy” contains elements of both the “filler” syndrome and its solution.  And none of it is bad.  Criterion has established its reputation for a reason.

Tag Gallagher’s Into the Future, as one of the best examples, is a half-hour visual essay that can be appreciated multiple times, and which will enrich our understanding of the three films—just as our deeper knowledge of the films will help us better understand (and, perhaps, disagree) with parts of Into the Future.  I would wager, anyway.   Simple but incisive observation (like pointing out the illegality of bicycles in Italy, and then pointing out a bicycle in the background of Open City) is the kind of thing, among others, that good criticism should provide.  Basic things that can culminate beautifully, meaningfully, and which do not simply “adorn” a film (like a bad audio commentary track) but open it up, show how it works.  Gallagher, one of our best critics and independent scholars, provides a terrific supplementary study to the War Trilogy.  His voice is distinctive, sometimes a tad hard to follow, but measured, leisurely but never lazy, and quite pleasurable to listen to.  I can’t say that I share all of Gallagher’s general approach to art [http://waysofseeing.org/tag.html], but I do cherish the findings of his critical eye, the sheer substance of his scholarly legwork, and the fierce devotion he has for his favorite filmmakers (a pantheon difficult to dispute).  Into the Future repesents a sort of video criticism that I’d like to see proliferate as supplementary material on box sets.

That all said, the good thing about “macro” approaches to DVD material, Great Men-based or otherwise, is that they might reframe a question in an altogether illuminating way.  (James Quandt’s booklet essay, “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: Myth and Manipulation,” is a good and exemplary overview.)  I was pleased so see that the people behind this set wagered that its consumers would be interested in the later, less sexy pockets of Rossellini’s career.  (Criterion of course emphasized this commitment with the earlier, and very welcome, Eclipse box set of select history films by Rossellini.)  And, pace Gallagher’s video-essay or Thomas Meder’s (tantalizing, coquettishly brief!) illustrated text essay on Rossellini and his mistress Roswitha Schmidt, there is some support for sustained, engaged critical interest in how these films operate.  Not to mention biographical interest that reflects back onto the films, and is not simply, “Ah, that’s a nice set of facts about Roberto’s childhood.”  I’m thinking, example-wise, of Meder’s suggestion that Germany Year Zero’s Edmund most resembles not Rossellini’s own late son Romano, to whom the film is dedicated, but perhaps looks most like Schmidt’s younger brother!

Fuzzy-audio excerpt footage of Rossellini’s interviews at Rice College in the 1970s is worth watching.  “The important thing is to wait,” he says at one point.  This is a credo of course so crucial to many approaches to cinema (obvious examples like Rohmer, Garrel, Burnett, Tarkovsky, Snow; less obvious, like the Spielberg/Shyamalan lineage)—and so fascinating because it operates here, in Rossellini, in dialectic relation to urgency.  Political, human urgency, and the immediacy of a world.  “Things are there.  Why manipulate them?”  Rossellini’s famous quote to Cahiers may be a lot of things, including a bit disingenuous, but it is also surely some fertile ground.  The world is so interesting that the cinema should strive not to create it but to capture it.

This fascination with the world—a world that demanded its own timing but was too important to wait for!—took Rossellini places. It led him to efface himself and try to present History (in the 1960s and ‘70s), and to make some beautiful films about faith too large to be acceptable (Europa ’51, The Flowers of St. Francis).  Immediately after World War II it led him and his collaborators to the wreckage of Europe’s cities, and to the moral and ethical dilemmas where opportunism and survivalism bled into one another, where new lives take root in death (Germany Year Zero).  The finest compliment I can think to pay to this box set is that it takes these most-canonized, heavily mythologized of Rossellini’s films, and includes among the additional materials pieces which insist that Rossellini was an important filmmaker across several decades, that these films were not the brief explosion Rossellini’s genius at its early-flowering height (like the myth of Welles), but the collaborative statements, highly inflected by chance, of a number of people—helmed by the larger-than-life figure of Rossellini, whose never subordinated his impassioned,  quixotic, infectious search for truth to the calcified demands of a single form.  Including this thing, “neo-realism.”

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Perhaps Rossellini is a follower of Corot? “One must not seek, one must wait.” However, his cinema seems more urgent than patient, to my eye.

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