Ruins and Redemption: Two Takes on Postwar Berlin

The original theatrical release poster for Billy Wilder's A FOREIGN AFFAIR | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Amidst the ruins of Berlin
Trees are in bloom as they have never been
Sometimes at night you feel in all your sorrow
A perfume as of a sweet tomorrow!

That’s when you realize at last
They won’t return—the phantoms of the past
A brand new spring is to begin
Out of the ruins of Berlin!

— Lyrics from “The Ruins of Berlin,” one of the songs composed
by Friedrich Hollaender for Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair

The set-up: American film director Billy Wilder, on a high after winning two Oscars for
The Lost Weekend, arrives in occupied Berlin in the summer of 1947 to film a romantic comedy amid the rubble. There he finds acclaimed Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini already at work on a far more serious project. The two spar over locations and vie for the attention of Marlene Dietrich, who moves in with Wilder after failing to woo Rossellini away from his mistress, Anna Magnani. Controversial when they were released, both Wilder’s A Foreign Affair and Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero are now considered masterpieces of postwar cinema.

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? And the backstories of the key figures raise the stakes considerably. Rossellini had just lost his eldest son, Romano, to complications following an emergency appendectomy, and the child who plays the main character in Germany, Year Zero bears an uncanny resemblance to Romano. From Tag Gallagher’s biography The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, we learn that the director conceived the entire film around the image of the innocent boy, corrupted by the unrepentant Nazis who surround him, wandering alone in the devastated landscape and, in the final scene, jumping to his death: “Germany’s fate has melded into Romano’s, Roberto’s personal agony has melded with Germany’s in a struggle of light and darkness.” Toward the end of his life, Rossellini claimed that he had intended the boy to serve as a Christ-like figure whose suffering would redeem the German people; in fact, Rossellini himself was desperately in need of redemption at the time he made Germany, Year Zero. Not only was his personal life in disarray, but there were calls from the Italian left for the director to come clean about his relationship with the fascist regime during the war.

At the other extreme we have Wilder, an Austrian Jew whose immediate family was murdered by the Nazis. In 1945, he was part of a team sent by the U.S. War Department to turn footage of the liberation of the death camps into a propaganda tool, part of the Allies’ denazification effort. Horrified by the mountains of corpses, the collections of shoes and hair, gold teeth extracted from the mouths of gassed Jews, lampshades made from their skin, Wilder was determined to hold Germans collectively accountable for the crimes of the Nazi regime. The documentary he edited, with a script written by a German-Jewish refugee, Die Todesmühlen (Death Mills), was merciless in its condemnation. “The same Germans who heiled Hitler,” intones the narrator at the conclusion of the film, “Today these same Germans who cheered the destruction of humanity, in their own land, who cheered attacks on hapless neighbors, who cheered the enslavement of Europe, beg for your sympathy.” Wilder recognized that such shock tactics would not work for long. A more palatable means of teaching Germans a lesson was needed, he felt, one that would stick. Luring them into movie theaters with the promise of a frothy Hollywood concoction, and then sneaking in a moral message that would spur them to do some overdue soul searching, was more his style.

Nevertheless, when it came to dishing out blame, A Foreign Affair was remarkably even-handed. Occupied Berlin was depicted as a free-for-all, with American GIs and officers alike profiteering on the black market and buying the favors of fraüleins with chocolate, nylons, and cigarettes. Marlene Dietrich was known to play the naughty German with relish both on-screen and off. Here, she reprises her role from The Blue Angel as a cabaret singer in a louche Berlin dive and even sings a few new numbers composed for her by Friedrich Hollaender, who wrote the signature tune for the earlier picture (“Falling in Love Again”) and has a bit part as the nightclub pianist in this one. Unapologetic about consorting with Nazis during the war, her character seduces the American captain played by John Lund and tells off the sanctimonious American congresswoman played by Jean Arthur. It’s a letdown when Lund abandons her for Arthur, even if we’re meant to be reassured that Dietrich’s character has the (ahem) resources to survive confinement in the labor camp where she is sent for rehabilitation. Rotten taste? So claimed detractors—on the floor of the House of Representatives, no less—prompting Paramount to yank the film a month into its run and leading Stuart Schulberg, the head of the documentary film unit of the U.S. Military Government in the American zone, to ban it outright in Germany. And yet the picture earned favorable reviews and was nominated for two Academy Awards. “Congress may not like this picture,” proclaimed New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther in his 1948 review. “And even the Department of the Army may find it a shade embarrassing. . . But [A Foreign Affair] has wit, worldliness and charm.”

By contrast, Crowther, who greatly admired the earlier films in Rossellini’s war trilogy, observed “a strange emptiness of genuine feeling” in his 1949 review of Germany, Year Zero:

Paisan and Open City, while plainly dissimilar in form, were films that turned sharply and deftly on withering dramatic twists. The terror and torture of those pictures came out of vivid, electric incidents—from things which happened to people for whose fate and anguish we could care. But, even though human desolation—especially of children—is naturally deplored, and there is plenty of desolation in Germany Year Zero, it is presented in an oddly passive way.

“Oddly passive” is putting it mildly. Germany, Year Zero is a ponderous film. Twelve-year-old Edmund does not know how to play, unless playing consists of picking up a piece of metal from a construction site, pointing it at his temple, and pretending to shoot himself in the head. For most of the picture he is listless, morose even. The Italian children in Rome, Open City are full of mischief, gleefully subverting the German occupiers. The orphan who “adopts” a Black American serviceman in the Naples segment of the second film in the trilogy, Paisan, only to steal his boots when he passes out drunk, is so likable, and so destitute, that we (along with the soldier) have no choice but to forgive him. Children were used to poignant effect in many of the beloved classics of neorealism, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves being the prime example. Edmund is clearly the outlier, but that is Rossellini’s point: German people are unfeeling at best, and frequently cruel and depraved. Witness Edmund’s old teacher, who grooms boys to become the sexual playthings of his landlord, an ex-Army officer who sports a monocle, while espousing Nazi doctrines. “Learn from the natural world,” he instructs his former pupil. “The strong sacrifice the weak.”

What accounts for the heavy-handedness is Rossellini’s bad conscience. All of the founding fathers (as we might call them) of neorealism came of age under fascism, apprenticing at Cinecittà, the film studio established by dictator Benito Mussolini and his son Vittorio. All, in other words, relied on the regime’s patronage at the start of their careers, but Rossellini’s debt went further.

Benito Mussolini’s push to establish a national film industry was meant to challenge the hegemony of American cinema over the Italian market; while recognizing the potential of this immersive art form to influence public opinion, he was chiefly concerned with the financial benefits of creating popular entertainment at home. Commercial considerations came first: a good number of the 700 films produced during the fascist era were fluffy comedies featuring the well-to-do in risqué situations. Known as “white telephone” films, they evoked the glamour of Jean Harlow’s boudoir in the pre-code gem Dinner at Eight, and were often set in foreign cities where adultery was thought to be rife (Budapest was a favorite locale), fascist Italy being too wholesome for such shenanigans. De Sica got his start acting in white telephone films, and the reason Luchino Visconti’s Obsession (an adaptation of James Cain’s steamy novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice) made it past the censors was because he pitched it as an American story, so popular was the genre.

Vittorio Mussolini had higher artistic ambitions than his father, and sought to make Italian cinema internationally renowned, but once Italy entered the war, he had no choice but to use the medium to rally the nation. A pilot who bragged of carrying out deadly air raids over Ethiopia and Spain, he aimed to stoke patriotic fervor by producing a series of documentary-style propaganda films combining footage of actual battles with melodramatic plots, and entrusted Rossellini with the job of directing them. A protégé of Vittorio’s and a practicing Catholic, he appeared untroubled by the regime’s brutality—as opposed to most of the younger generation of filmmakers at Cinecittà, whose sympathies resided with the communists. They emerged from the war in a strong moral position, whereas Rossellini was tarred by his close association with the dictatorship and needed to assert his anti-fascist credentials.

Rome, Open City is set in 1943, during the German occupation, and celebrates the Italian Resistance. Despite its raw, documentary feel, the picture featured professional actors and a myth-like storyline that shows Italians from all walks of life—old and young, religious or atheist, professional, working-class, or unemployed, cops and communists—united courageously against the oppressor. True, “oppressor” in this context means the Nazis; apart from the loose woman who informs on her communist boyfriend, a leader in the underground movement, and a hamstrung Roman official who does the Germans’ bidding, there are no bad Italians in the picture. Still, there are moments when it feels as if Rossellini is asking for forgiveness. Pina (Anna Magnani), a poor widow, is at the forefront of the crowd of women who storm a bakery, but she shares some of her haul with the local policeman who arrives to keep order. Pregnant and unmarried, she is deeply ashamed of herself for having sinned against God. “There are things you do without thinking that don’t feel like you’re doing wrong,” she tells the partisan priest, Don Pietro. “We have so much to be forgiven for,” he agrees, alluding to the fascist years.

Beyond this small concession, however, Rossellini refused to go. Italians are presented as victims of both the retreating Germans and the liberating Yanks in Paisan, driven to desperation by the need to survive in their bombed-out cities. The same actress (Maria Michi) who played the loose woman in Rome, Open City returns as a prostitute in the Rome segment of Paisan, but this time she elicits our sympathy. We glimpse her as a lovely young woman, trusting and full of hope for the future, on the day the Americans arrive. Six months later she is reduced to selling her body to those same Americans and has become streetwise, soiled, her dreams destroyed. Don’t judge us, Rossellini seems to be saying, but he fails to allow the same latitude to German civilians in bombed-out Berlin. The binary oppositions of wartime still apply, at least where the enemy is concerned.

Stig Dagerman was a 23-year-old Swedish journalist who visited Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Many reporters sent back stories of the devastation of German cities, the homelessness and starvation of the population, but Dagerman was one of the few who refused to address the question of whether the German people deserved to suffer for having supported Hitler and his murderous agenda. In his 1947 book German Autumn, he describes families sleeping in flooded cellars and victims thirsting for revenge, “well-dressed but badly painted German girls . . . trying to catch as many eyes as possible with their provocative glances.” Sinking people, all of them. A Polish teacher he meets on a train invites him to her derelict apartment in a building missing its roof and introduces him to her boyfriend, a wounded German soldier who carries shrapnel in his body and memories also “from a Berlin that was once a friendly place. He is able to tell jokes,” marvels Dagerman, who uses the couple as an emblem of Year Zero (the phrase appears in German Autumn):

This freezing, starving, surreptitiously bargaining, dirty and immoral Berlin can still tell funny stories, can still be friendly enough to ask lonely strangers home to tea, still has such people as this Polish teacher and this soldier, who are certainly living unlawfully but who serve, paradoxically enough, as points of light in a great darkness, since they have sufficient courage to sink with their eyes open.

Was it Wilder’s memories of a friendlier Berlin that account for his change of heart, combined perhaps with Dietrich’s presence in his life? The two had known one another before the war and were often seen giggling together on the set, reminiscing over their scandalous exploits in the city during the Weimar era. In her excellent cultural history of occupied Germany, The Bitter Taste of Victory, Lara Feigel attributes the tolerant tone of A Foreign Affair to Wilder’s nostalgia “for the lost Germany of his own youth.” But Dagerman’s unflinching honesty occasionally creeps in, as when Dietrich’s character confronts the congresswoman: “What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians swept in? I kept going. It was living hell.” Not many people were talking about Russian soldiers raping German women in 1948, and here’s Wilder matter-of-factly addressing the subject in a picture billed as a frothy Hollywood concoction. You’ll be buttonholed by people you hardly know who’ll tell you, “I just saw the funniest show in my life!” reads the poster. Ha!