Earlier this month The Criterion Collection rereleased Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy on Blu-ray and it is one of the year's essential sets. The three included films, Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948), are not only landmarks of world cinema, they are also incredibly brave and eye-opening works of art even all these years later. I'm not going to pretend that I have a lot to add to the mountains of critical and sociological analysis that already exists out there, I can definitely share why these films are so special to me. First, though, a basic rundown.
Rome Open City is the story of the Italian resistance in Nazi-occupied Italy. The film was shot in 1945, shortly after the Nazis had been expelled from Rome by Allied forces, but the damage - both emotional and physical - was still an everyday reality for the people of the city. We see various characters from all social strata attempting not only fight back against the Nazi oppression, but also to retain some sense of a normal life, all while the underground fighters are persecuted, tortured, and killed for trying to defend their country.
Paisan is an anthology of six different stories exploring the complicated relationships between the Italians, both common and partisan fighters, with the liberating Allied forces, overwhelmingly Americans in this case. Each of the six stories explores a different facet of the interplay between the Italians, who were reeling from years of unwanted war and a recently toppled fascist government, and the Americans who, in spite of their best intentions, were still essentially an invading force. No one comes out completely clean, and the complex conversation and interpersonal relationships between the soldiers, chaplains, common Italians, and the partisan fighters trying to dispose of the Nazi threat is incredible and offers a view of the war through a fascinating lens.
In Germany Year Zero, Rossellini moves the action to post-war Germany. Unlike Italy, where there was a massive underground faction that opposed the government, in Germany the public by and large accepted the fascist regime as a force for positive change. Rossellini explores the emotional toll on the citizens of a Germany in ruins, starting over from scratch after their thousand-year-reich was crushed by the Allied forces. Germans not only had to deal with the fact that their country had lost the war, they had to find ways to survive in a nation whose infrastructure was devastated. All of these impossible challenges are seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy named Edmund, who shoulders the weight of his family's survival.
As an American, every history lesson I've ever had in school was told from our point of view. Those lessons were very black and white, there were the Axis enemies and the Allied friends, and among the Axis powers were both the Italians and the Germans. Of course, the majority of the education that I had regarding the war had to do with the battles with the German and Japanese armies, but it was always understood that Italy and Germany stood together, and we conflated thoser armies with their citizens because we didn't know any better. The War Trilogy does a lot of humanize the evil Axis powers and provide context and shades of grey, and that's a crucial step in developing compassion, an emotion that the world seems to find less and less useful every day.
Rossellini's goal in his filmmaking was to hold a mirror up to the audiences. He didn't want to tell flowery stories to get his point across, he didn't feel they were necessary. Reality is dramatic enough without attempting to embellish the truth. The Italian neo-realist movement, with filmmakers like Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti at its head, was an attempt to make sense of the world as it was, rather than as they wished it might be. In the the case of the War Trilogy, Rossellini succeeded in not only holding up a mirror to his own people - though the films didn't find huge success until they showed in France - but also opening a window to international film audiences into the state of post-war Italy as it happened.
These films, along with the the works of the other above mentioned filmmakers, allow outsiders to see into these worlds that are so literally foreign even seventy years later. They are a way to come to terms with the whole reality of World War II, and by extension the reality of war everywhere. It seems silly, in this day and age when we seem to have every waking moment of our lives recorded and shared, that it can still be surprising to see the real lives of people struggling to stay alive in these regions, but focusing on these common people is essential because that is the realest part of war.
For many, many generations now, Americans have had the very fortunate luxury of not having to deal with war on our territory. Not since the Civil War have we had to struggle or fear for our lives on a daily basis. It's difficult to understand what that is like, but art has the power to not just show you what happens, like we might see in a YouTube video or news report, but also to immerse you in a world where these kinds of struggles and atrocities are commonplace. This is the power of The War Trilogy, even today. Art has the powerful ability to foster compassion from those who you see as different, and if we all worked on that a little bit harder, maybe we could slow down the cycle of violence.
The new Blu-ray re-issue of The War Trilogy from Criterion is largely identical to the previous DVD release from 2010. The upgrade in this case is a trio of new restorations, 4K in the case of Rome Open City, 2K for Paisan, and HD for Germany Year Zero. The results of the restorations are apparent from the opening frames of each film. The new transfers show great improvement in detail, contrast, and black levels. There is still a noticable amount of print damage on these transfers, but not so much as to be distracting. The audio is now uncompressed Mono PCM, which sounds pretty good, and in line with other films from the era.
Frankly, I was surprised when Criterion released this trilogy back in 2010 as a DVD-only set. They'd already been releasing films on Blu-ray for two years at that point, and this seemed like an easy HD pick, but I'm guessing that they understood what lay in store in terms of the restoration and chose to get it out on the market. These films, in spite of a bit of print damage, really benefit greatly from the HD upgrade and this is an easy recommendation.
All of the extras from Criterion's DVD set are repeated here, all upgraded to HD. While it would've been relatively easy to cram a bunch of features onto a bonus disc, Criterion have instead chosen to pack each disc with material averaging well over an hour per film.
Rome Open City gets a commentary track with Peter Bondanella (a bit dry but very informative), and 2006 documentary called Once Upon a Time (featuring interviews with people like Fellini, Anna Magnani, Ingrid Bergman, and many more), a taped introduction from French television by Rossellini (a feature that each film gets), as well as several other scholarly interviews from academics far more eloquent than I.
Paisan gets another Rossellini introduction, and interview with scholar Adriano Apra, excerpts from a discussion with Rossellini hosted by Rice University in 1970, and a visual essay from Tag Gallagher.
Germany Year Zero also gets a Rossellini introduction, a wonderful documentary by Carlo Lizzani titled Roberto Rossellini from 2000 which features interviews from luminaries like Trauffat and Scorsese, as well as family members and frequent collaborators, a discussion with Lizzani from 1987 titled Letters From the Front, and numerous other interviews with scholars like Apra, and filmmakers the Taviani brothers.
The set finishes up with a great set of essays from writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Colin McCabe, Irene Bignardi, and James Quandt.
It is impossible to overstate the essential nature of this set. I cannot recommend The War Trilogy enough.