When film critics compile their favorite top ten lists of anti-war movies, you can usually expect to see titles like King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plains (1959), Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) among the favored elite. It has only been in recent years that Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (German title: Die Brucke) has popped up on lists, thanks in part to The Criterion Collection, which remastered it on DVD and Blu-ray in June 2015. Almost forgotten since its original release in 1959, the film is just as powerful and moving as it was over sixty years ago.
I first encountered The Bridge at a film screening at the Goethe Institute in Atlanta sometime in 2001 or so. The society was set up to show 16mm and 35mm prints and it was there that I was first exposed to the New German cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlondorff. Unfortunately, the programmer at the Goethe was unable to obtain a film print of The Bridge and had to opt for a VHS copy which looked like a second generation dub with hard-to-read English subtitles. Even under these undesirable conditions, the film’s eloquence and intensity made a strong impression.
The Bridge is based on an actual incident that occurred in the spring of 1945 in a small German village and became the basis for Gregor Dorfmeister’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Dorfmeister, who was sixteen at the time he was conscripted into the German army, changed some of the details for dramatic effect but the mounting sense of panic as the Allies advance toward the boys’ village is genuine.
The movie opens on the day before American troops are expected to arrive and the German army, in desperation, are hurriedly drafting teenage boys in a last ditch attempt to stop the invasion. Slowly the young protagonists are introduced to us as they go about their daily lives in the village, attending school, playing pranks on each other and behaving like typical teenagers. But as each one receives his draft notice in the mail, the lighthearted mood turns to one of increasing anxiety which director Wicki tightens to an almost vise-like intensity in the final forty minutes of the film as the seven young schoolboys are left to defend a bridge from the oncoming troops.
Full of idealism and macho bravado, these unformed young men seem determined to prove to themselves and their elders that they are braver and stronger than the retreating German soldiers, many horribly wounded, who pass them by on their escape route out of the village. In the case of two of the boys, their defiance is rooted in a deep anger and resentment of their fathers – one has abandoned his wife for his mistress, the other is a local Nazi party dignitary who flees town when danger rears its head. The new recruits are further spurred on by Colonel Frohlich (Heinz Spitzner), who tells them, “Every square foot of land we defend is part of our fatherland. The soldier who defends that square foot to his last breath is the savior of Germany.” Of course, we know these young men are doomed, and when the first boy is killed by a plane’s machine-gunner, the gung-ho schoolmates are suddenly confronted with the reality of death. And so it goes.
Some reviewers have complained about the pacing in the first half of the film and the need to better establish the characters of the seven school chums before the action begins. While there are a few unneeded melodramatic flourishes in the depiction of some of the boys’ personal lives, I think The Bridge is tightly paced and, for American audiences, the point of view is unique and fascinating. By the time the young men are in position for their final defense of the bridge, which the local German officers were planning to destroy that day, our sympathies are with them, not the Allies who are depicted as a frightening array of oncoming tanks and armored jeeps.
The Bridge is in the great tradition of anti-war cinema, but it is also an elegy for young, wasted lives. These were mere schoolboys who were deluded by the Fuhrer into thinking they were dying for a good cause when they died for nothing. The beauty of Wicki’s dispassionate approach is that you could easily view their sacrifice as noble or a waste. In a review of the film, Pauline Kael noted, that “Oddly, the film has acquired a following among conservatives and militarists who think the massacred innocents died nobly.”
It is not surprisingly that The Bridge became a cause celebre in its own country, paving the way for the New German cinema of late sixties and early seventies. The film garnered four awards in 1960 at the German Film Awards including Best Feature Film and Best Direction. Other honors include Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Film of 1960 (it shared the prize with four other nominees), National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Film of 1961, and most importantly, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 1959. Not surprisingly, the Academy Award went to Black Orpheus, a much more exotic, audience-friendly film.
When Wicki’s film officially opened in the U.S. in 1961, it was widely praised by most critics with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times leading the charge: “Herr Wicki has constructed an intense and compelling film, notable for its cinematic sharpness and its concentrated emotional drive… The details of disaster are nerve-shattering…Wicki has let us have it, right between the eyes. There is irony, some pity and lots of realism in this film. If anyone still needs to be told so, it carries the message: War is hell.”
What is most remarkable is that The Bridge was only Wicki’s second directorial effort. His first film was a documentary about German youth, Warum sind sie gegen uns (Why Are They Against Us?, 1958). His third film, The Miracle of Father Malachia (1961), a biting satire about Germany’s post-war economic recovery, was also a critical and commercial success. Then Hollywood came calling and 20th-Century-Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck hired Wicki to direct the German sections of his WW2 epic, The Longest Day (1962).
His two subsequent films for the studio, The Visit (1964), an adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play, and Morituri (1965), a WW2 espionage drama starring Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner, were less successful and Wicki returned to Germany where he found it increasingly difficult to find worthwhile projects to direct other than a few made-for-TV movies, a documentary on Curd Jurgens and Das Spinnennetz (Spider’s Web, 1989), his final film starring Klaus Maria Brandauer in a drama set during the chaotic years following WWI.
Wicki, who began his film career as an actor, was actually much more prolific in that role. For most of the fifties, he enjoyed a wide range of leading man roles in German films and then begin to branch out as a character actor in international productions starting with Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). Other significant roles include Ivan Passer’s Crime and Passion (1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair (1978), Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980), Andrzej Wajda’s A Love in Germany (1983) and Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas (1984).
Wicki died in January 2000 at the age of 80 but The Bridge remains his crowning achievement. When The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of it on Blu-ray/DVD with several special edition featurettes, it sparked a renewed interest in the film and ensured its legacy as one of most important post-WW2 films to emerge from West Germany.
Some additional trivia: The Bridge is said to have inspired the final battle scene in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also remade as a German TV movie in 2008 directed by Wolfgang Panzer and starring Francois Goeske and Franke Potente.
It is interesting to note the difference in the poster promotions for the original 1959 version when it was released outside of Germany; the European ads take a more artful approach, stressing the stark and harrowing subject matter while the American release version (below) plays up the sex and violence in typical exploitation fashion and totally misrepresents the film.
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