The first thing film critics have to get right is the title.
Let me explain a bit.
On my site, I always list a film in its original language (to the best of my ability).
In my opinion, that is the best way of honoring the film.
So far, I have encountered the mild idiosyncrasies of Romanian, Serbo-Croat, Czech, and Polish in addition to the mind-blowing intricacy of Farsi and Japanese.
But with Deutschland im Jahre Null we are seeing a German-language film by an Italian director…sort of.
Italy has a very peculiar tradition concerning voiceovers and direct (or, conversely, indirect) sound. It is an oddity which caught the attention of Godard in his role as film historian.
I cannot give you as erudite an explanation as my hero Jean-Luc, but suffice it to say that foreign (non-Italian) films in Italy have traditionally been overdubbed into Italian. So, in other words, no subtitles.
This is distinct from an American viewer watching a Fellini film. The “American” version (whether on DVD or as a film print in a theater) will be in Italian with subtitles in English. This goes for almost all foreign-language (non-English) films marketed in the United States.
But getting back to Deutschland im Jahre Null… It is similar to the Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer directing the French film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc…with one major difference. Dreyer’s film was a silent one (the only French being the intertitles). Rossellini’s Deutschland im Jahre Null is very much in German. We are hearing German actors speak (exclusively) German dialogue.
What is most interesting is the linguistic lineage of this film. In English, this film is known as:
Germany, Year Zero
Which is quite similar to Rossellini’s preceding masterpiece (in linguistic parallel):
Rome, Open City
To be fair, let’s consider the Italian name (the real name) of Rome, Open City: Roma città aperta. Fine. That is the way I recognize the film. The true name is (in my mind) Roma città aperta.
But with Deutschland im Jahre Null we come to a very strange case. If we do not recognize the primacy of its English title (Germany, Year Zero), and I do not, then we are directed by that great arbiter of cultural legitimacy Wikipedia to consider our options exhausted by being cognizant of the Italian title (Germania anno zero).
What is the message of this omission by English Wikipedia? I believe the message is that Germany was (and continues to be) a null. A zero. A conquered culture.
We see a similar thing in the kowtowing stereotype of conquered Japan. And though Japan might be experiencing some moderate-to-light financial troubles in recent years, Germany is by all accounts the economic powerhouse of continental Europe. Why do I bring economics into the discussion? Because wealthy nations are able to assert themselves.
But let us step back a bit. Wikipedia does have some tasty morsels of information concerning this film. If the source can be trusted, this 1948 film was not shown in Germany (the country from whence the language of the film takes its name) until 1952. After its single screening in München (Munich), it was not heard from again within those borders until it ran on German television in 1978.
Wow…26 years. Either this film was grossly misunderstood, or it was understood all too well. From my reading, this is a very pro-German document.
Rossellini was not George Stevens making concentration camp propaganda. Roberto was making art. The sign of art is the admission of possibilities. Art seduces us because it is subtle. Art does not proclaim in blanket statements. Art does not underestimate the intelligence of the viewer.
Roberto Rossellini did something with his “war films trilogy” which seems to have been unprecedented. The desire of neorealism was to film fiction as if it were documentary. This fiction would be, likewise, based on reality.
But why is it, then, that we have very different views of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Flaherty?
I will tell you my guess. Flaherty’s sin was in the framing of his presentation. To wit, he presented his staged documentaries (take the oil industry propaganda piece Louisiana Story for instance) as if they were naturally-occurring, spontaneous documentaries. The sin, then, was his duplicitous relationship with his subjects. He actively made his human subjects into actors.
Rossellini takes a different tack. There is no pretense that Deutschland im Jahre Null is an ACTUAL documentary. It merely has the feel of that medium. Likewise, Rossellini’s use of nonprofessional actors was likely more of a precursor to Robert Bresson than a twist on Flaherty’s bizarre formula (which predated Roberto in both Nanook of the North  and Man of Aran ). No, Rossellini had created something new.
It’s not so much the films of Flaherty to which I object as it is the idea of them. At least one of his concoctions (perhaps thanks to director F.W. Murnau) is very fine indeed: Tabu . Flaherty and Murnau co-wrote this ostensible documentary. Indeed, with Flaherty we come into contact with inchoate, obscure film genres such as docudrama, docufiction, fictional documentary (ethnofiction), etc. etc. etc.
Most importantly, none of what I have written here has even scratched the surface of Deutschland im Jahre Null. What ever became of the heartrending main child actor Edmund Moeschke? I do not know.
One thing is certain to me: no film before Rossellini’s “war trilogy” (Roma città aperta, Paisà, and Deutschland im Jahre Null) [1945/1946/1948] takes on such politically sensitive and important topics in such a raw way. The closest would be the socialism of Eisenstein or the humanism of Chaplin.
It is, therefore, no wonder at all that Rossellini spawned a million “new waves” the world over.