Roberto Rossellini and World War II: Part One

The three visually dissimilar but thematically interlocked films made by director Roberto Rossellini, dramatizing the last days of the Second World War and its aftermath, constitute nothing less than the birth of a new European cinema. Many of the technical and stylistic ideas that later flowered in the French and American New Waves, and in the New German Cinema lead inexorably back to the great war trilogy of Roma, Città Aperta, (Rome, Open City), Paisà (Paisan), and Deutschland im Jahre Null (Germany, Year Zero). Photographed in a time frame of three years, the War Trilogy burst onto the European stage in a riot of festival awards, and made the director the locus of international film at a time when the decimated film industries of all Europe were clawing out of the ashes of ruined cities and struggling to redefine themselves against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Each of the films singly, and the trilogy together, are a cri de coeur, a powerful litany of death, as well as a paean to the human spirit, if not to the literal presence of Christian sacrifice for one’s fellow man.

Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “All roads lead to Rome, Open City.” Much has been written about the first of the films in this trilogy, which Rossellini and his crew began to shoot in January of 1945, only weeks after the nine month German occupation of Rome had ended with the Allies’ liberation of the historic capital—even as fighting continued to rage in the north of the country until early April.

There has been much mythology concerning the conditions of the shooting and of the raw documentary style associated with this film, as well as with Rossellini’s putatively overly complex narrative structure. Although there was a certain level of dialogue improvisation during the filming, the full script of Rome, Open City lays out in precise detail the course of the action; the intricate intersecting relationships were, in fact, carefully wrought. The script was written by Sergio Amidei with dialogue assistance by Frederico Fellini, belying claims that it was mostly improvised. Rossellini insists that they began to write the screenplay during the German Occupation.

In an interview in 1963 for French television, directed by Jean-Marie Coldefy, Rossellini describes the nascent idea behind the quest for a new realism, “After all we’d seen and been through with the destruction of the war, we couldn’t afford the luxury of making up fictional stories.” Nor could they afford the unreality of the studio trappings with which Rossellini had learned his craft. An insistent reality of place asserts itself at every turn in Rome, Open City. (Amidei’s apartment, for example, was one of the locations where the Germans make a forced search; his own maids played small roles). However, Italian critic Irene Bigardi has another perspective concerning real locations rather than studio shooting for the film.  It derives from a decree made by Admiral Ellery W. Stone, who headed a commission created to decide the future of Italian cinema, a not unwise decision given the tangled connection between filmmaking and the fascist regime, wherein Mussolini’s son was deeply involved. Bigardi writes:

“that since ‘the so-called Italian cinema was invented by the fascists,’ it had to be suppressed. Full stop. Cinecittà, the seat of the best Italian production before the war, was turned into a centro di sfollamento, a homeless camp…. It had to begin anew somewhere else. And it did.”

Clearly, shooting outside of studio facilities became not only an aesthetic choice, but one of political necessity.

The principal cast members were an inspired mix of non-actors and well-known film and theater stars. Aldo Fabrizi (Don Pietro Pellegrini) was one of the most sought after film comics of music hall and variety shows; Anna Magnani was starring in her twentieth film. Rossellini cast a number of non-actors, such as Vito Annicciarico as Pina’s young son, Marcello, and Francesco Grandjacquet was set as her fiancé, Francesco; he was a real-life partisan fighter against the Germans and Italian fascists. The film’s two lead characters are also drawn from real life archetypes. Anna Magnani’s Pina, gunned down in the street at the end of the first part as she pursues the truck carrying off Francesco, is modeled on Teresa Gullace; the real-life Partisan priest, Don Morosini, is portrayed by Aldo Fabrizi, who is executed in an open field as children look on, at the end of part two.

Veteran cinematographer Ubaldo Arata had begun his career shortly after WWI; he was soon to retire, a veteran of many of the “white telephone” drawing room films that were the stock in trade of Italian thirties fascist cinema. Rossellini, himself, had already directed more than a half dozen films in both documentary and melodrama genres under the aegis of Mussolini’s son, a prominent film critic. Though widely lauded for its realistic street photography, much of Rome, Open City takes place in interiors, a goodly number of which were filmed in a single cramped basement that served as a stage, where one set had to be shot out before the next one could be built in the same space. Especially in these interior scenes, the camera and lighting styles more often than not reflect the conventions of the day, with an emphasis on dramatic character, even deep chiaroscuro, lighting. It is mainly in Rossellini’s startling but sparse use of the single long take with minimal coverage, that his own directorial identity began to emerge, a technique that would find fuller expression in several episodes of Paisà.

Although there is an almost Brechtian break that separates the film into its two parts, the story arc is continuous. The justly famous scene of the death of Pina is the emotional climax of the first part.

Pina, just before she is gunned down.

Fabrizi, the priest who is himself to die at the end of the next section, cradles Pina in a gender reversed Piéta as her son Marcello is dragged away, screaming. In one of the “extras” included in the Criterion box set, an interview with the Taviani Brothers, they speak of the startling impression of the blinding white of Marcello’s altar boy cassock against the black of Pina’s dress as she lies dead in the street:

There has evolved a labyrinth of myth regarding the "look" of the film that comes from speculation about the use of film stocks. One story has it that short ends were purchased on the black market (of this version, Rossellini himself is an exponent) with the film rolls being of uneven quality and provenance. Another scholar purports to have examined the original camera negative and determined that much of it is from two Agfa stocks. Another story insists that the entire film was shot on dupe negative stock since no normal camera negative was available. And yet another claim is that the uneven quality of the negative is the result of uncertain quality control in lab processing. Any, or all of these factors, could be true, since for generations of viewers until now, the look of the film has been  murky and duped. But one thing is clear. The mix of classical, chiaroscuro, studio lighting alternating with the raw street presence and energy, maintains a compelling visual tension throughout the film.

The Criterion Collection has released a newly re-mastered version of this great film in a three DVD box set of the whole trilogy. The set overflows with extra material, critical essays, and a myriad of interviews from recent and older sources. Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut, co-writer and assistant director Carlo Lizzani, the Tavianis, even Rossellini himself, who introduces each of the three films from the 1963 interview, all contribute in weaving a rich background tapestry that places this film and its two subsequent companions into a  long-needed historical-political and aesthetic context. Paisà is presented in a version faithful to its uncut original release, a version that has not been seen for decades. And Germany, Year Zero, a film that is virtually unknown in this country, takes its just place alongside these two other seminal post war films. This last film is revealed to be a powerful lament on the idea of the life sacrificed, as well as an homage to the director’s recently deceased, nine year-old son, Romano.

Rome Open City is an intense melodrama focused on the privation and suffering of the Romans, pressed under the thumb of the German occupation that followed the overthrow of Mussolini in the capital on July 25, 1943. Mussolini may have retreated to the north but the fascists persevered until Il Duce’s execution in Giulino, Lombardy, on April 28, 1945. German forces in Italy surrendered less than a week later.

Just as long-suffering as the Italian civilians portrayed in the film, the German officers are seen as rapacious, even sexually degenerate and evil (a pervasive trope of Italian cinema embraced later by Pasolini, Antonioni and Pontecorvo). At the direction of the new government, which strongly supported the making of the film, Rossellini agreed to soften the portrayal of Italians who had collaborated with the Nazis and the fascist police. In the execution scene of Don Pietro, the Italian firing squad aims into the ground, refusing to kill the priest.

Don Pietro, at the moment of his execution.

Rossellini scholar Tag Gallager affirms in a detailed half-hour documentary “extra” that he narrates, that of the 115 known such executions, the German officers overseeing these killings never had to deliver the coup de grace. The Italian fascists were brutal and willing enough to do the killing. But this fact did not serve Rossellini’s, Fellini’s nor Amadei’s purpose in creating a film that would be a template proclaiming Italy’s heroic resistance to the Occupation. They wanted to provide an alternative scenario to that of the twenty years of fascist rule that had just ended. While there is no denying Rossellini’s sincere intention to provide a message of hope through transcendent suffering and forgiveness, and of his unflagging belief in democracy, one could argue that he may partly have been expiating his own silence while serving as an emerging filmmaker under the mantle of Mussolini’s son.

The eight minute sequence that ends the film brings together many of the themes that have coursed through the whole  narrative. Here, Don Pietro has been arrested along with the partisan, Giorgio Manfredi. The effete Major Bergman (played to loathsome effect by the apparently loathsome Austrian actor Harry Feist), supervises unflinchingly real (for the time) torture while the priest, whose broken glasses make the sounds more painful than his muddied sight can discern, is forced to watch from the next room. The over-riding theme of love and sacrifice that pervades the film is here cast into an intense confrontation between the Catholic priest and the Nazi nihilist. Symbolic Christian shadow motifs are prominent on the walls. At 2'30" in the clip Manfredi’s ex-girlfriend, the drug addict/collaborator Marina, enters with the SS degenerate, Captain Hartmann, (who later executes Don Pietro), sees her dead lover, and faints.

Marina sees the body of Manfredi, as Bergmann,Hartmann, and Ingrid look on.

As the camera dollies into Hartmann at 3'45", he says in a rare moment of lucidity among the madness—“Wir sind keine Herrenrasse.” “We are no master race.” The subtitle mistranslates it and thus his comment is often mistaken as irony.

Rome, Open City was a watershed for the young Fellini. Though he had written a few scripts, this was his first job as an assistant director. In the European tradition, the AD was in fact a true creative assistant to the director, helping him in all on-set directing matters. Fellini was also one of the scriptwriters. He later said of his experience on this film:

Rossellini made me see that you could make films in spite of the huge number of people involved; the whole cinematic grammar could be mastered and then completely ignored.

Rossellini, indeed, knew all the rules. He mastered them and then he went on in this film, and throughout his long career, to bend and break them, to remold them into the ever-changing stylistic and thematic shapes of his relentlessly singular vision. To watch again Rome, Open City is to go back to the embryo of modern cinema and to see it being born.

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