If war movies wear that scar to deliberate the ambivalence of the spectator, then “The Bridge” may very well be one of the most confrontational of its time. The film’s extraordinary power, even now, seems alarming when one considers its relative obscurity; made in 1959 by Bernhard Wicki, then a marginal filmmaker with only television credits to his name, it symbolized one of the first acts of self-guilt against the Nazi position, when many still believed the wounds of the Holocaust were too fresh to discuss objectively. Wicki’s audacity ultimately relegated the result into a strange limbo between merit and controversy, where it sat and waited, somewhat impervious, for almost half a century before finally coming to distribution in the Criterion library. Those who now see it with modern blinders – and that includes me, a lifelong student of World War II – discover a rare commodity among a treasure of insightful commentaries against fascism, about the plight of youth in a world where their sacrifice was disguised by the conceit of false nobility.
A great many adults realized this prospect towards the close of the Third Reich, although the total power of the Hitler machine relegated their dissent to the fringes of private conversations and ambiguous gestures. That becomes obvious in the movie’s earliest scenes, during the final days of the war, when the Nazis move into retreat against American forces at the opposing shore; townsfolk look on in defeated silence, although they don’t so much mourn the loss of a national identity as they contemplate an atonement. Their children, meanwhile, carry on without reservation, foreseeing the strategy as just another maneuver in a fight that has become a conventional backdrop (a map of the battlefield in the classroom establishes it as part of a daily acknowledgment). Schoolyard antics carry on, including pranks, teasing, sports and passing notes between each other over the shoulders of teachers. A portrait emerges of contrasting outlooks, with the teens almost romanticizing the idea of becoming instruments in the fight. The discuss the impending arrival of draft letters with gleeful optimism. Some see it as a signal to maturity, others an escape from less-than-tolerable living conditions. And always the adults stand back as if grief-stricken by their unvarnished enthusiasm, too paralyzed by the shock to dissuade or interfere in what may be a quick death sentence.
Wicki doesn’t simply establish the gray areas of the situation but formulates a full and thorough picture of the lives underneath the uniforms. The youngest of them is Sigi, a boy teased about his miniscule stature, whose sense of confidence acts as a compensation against a small frame and meek presence; his mother, ever-so-protecting and unconditional, tries daily to convince him to give up his nationalist aspirations. Walter, the quietest of the group, wanders amongst others without a sense of direction (“he doesn’t believe in anything anymore,” an onlooker says) – and the catalysts may be the sudden disappearance of his mother, who inexplicably abandons the family, and the crude public affairs of his father, a party leader, who moves a mistress in on the eve of his draft. Jurgen, the boy on the farm, occupies time by assisting his widow mother spread rations among the struggling townsfolk, and Karl, a hothead blossoming into puberty, sees his destiny become a diversion from certain betrayal after an unhealthy crush is thwarted while spying the same woman in a sexual moment upstairs with his father.
There is a sense amongst the remaining three that life contains tremendous anchors behind the blinders of the war. Consider Klaus, for instance, who engages in a harmless crush with the schoolgirl who sits beside him in class; there is a moment between them where he freely gives his watch to her, unaffected by the notion of material things, because he loves the idea of making her smile (later, when he must demand it back for enlisting purposes, he is equally unaware of her immediate disappointment). And then there is the brotherly relationship between Albert and Hans, two best friends who live with each other under the roof of Albert’s mother; while she silently waits what must be unending hours for a letter to arrive from her husband, who is a soldier in the Nazi army, the boys are sworn to show loyalty to one another as the certainty of their draft becomes clearer – even though the sobering exchange between the mother and Hans also seems to provide the material an emotional foreshadowing for the climax.
The literal mass of “The Bridge” relies on this exposition for a throng of purposes, not the least of which is to illustrate the unvarnished skill and dedication of its young actors. As we observe their exchanges – together and apart – there is a sense they are being followed by the shadows of their situations; they are not so much actors reciting fiction as they are roleplaying the pain of recent history. Each step of the narrative depends on this perspective because of what it must mean for the eventual conclusion, which comes suddenly and swiftly after the boys are brought into the army, seen as liabilities by the sergeant (in one scene, their former schoolteacher barters on their behalf for a less arduous assignment than the battlefield), and assigned the insubstantial task of watching over the town’s bridge over the course of a key night before the American advancement, when the army plots to blow it up to avoid “pointless casualties.”
What they don’t expect, unfortunately, is seven enthusiastic boys owning their task with one final act of unrelenting dedication. The certainty of those final hours is underscored the night before by a throng of Nazi officials in retreat from the fog on the other side of the bridge, where they emerge broken and wounded and cynical. Their dialogue acts as one final warning against their fool-hearted conviction: vacate now or become the next string of victims in the inevitable crumbling of the Reich. But they see these claims less as alarms and more as the confessions of a wave of soldiers who have conceded unnecessary defeat. Meanwhile, the certainty of their fate is all but sealed when the lone sergeant charged to watch over them is gunned down in an alleyway nearby, where others have wrongfully assumed he is fleeing against command. Wicki sets the predicament up in such a way that no one left nearby knows why the boys have been charged with protecting such an insignificant landmark, particularly one that will be strategically abolished in the coming dawn.
A great many war films will obscure the obligatory signals behind operations that seem structured without a clear outcome. “The Bridge” builds the case in the thick of an assured doom. But a rare dramatic intensity overtakes the material because the seven figures do not realize this until the first shots are fired. How this is conveyed speaks volumes: at the crack of dawn, upon hearing a fighter jet overhead, Sigi shouts a warning and ducks behind an obstacle on the bridge, as if sure that they all are facing their first danger. When there is no gunfire, the others laugh and tease his apparent cowardice. But then the jet circles back around, moves in and cocks its artillery downward. This time, all of them drop to their bellies… except Sigi, who has taken the previous insult as a chance to prove his defiant bravery, and now stands to becomes the first fatality in a long and depressing trek towards unnecessary bloodshed. The final shot of his face turned upwards toward the looming gunfire is the most sobering moment in the film.
The gestures of the third act play like a chaotic melody of skill, strategy, anguish, confusion and pathos; with each new death, the remaining teenagers are driven further to prove their dedication, right down to the final shot in the back of an American soldier who has arrived on the bridge to implore their surrender (because of a language barrier, they mistake his advice as a slur against their youth). The common bond between their final moments is rooted primarily in a human touch: each event ends with a closeup of a face – whether it is one who has just died or someone who bore witness to it – until one final survivor stands to react in a collapse of tears. But what of the adults? Where do they stand in response to watching the lives of their children be snuffed out so carelessly? That there is no final declaration to leave us with is significant. Silence is often what causes the deaths of children during relentless military operations, and the events on the bridge play as miniature to the more sweeping standards of warmongers.
Wicki would not become one of the more prominent filmmakers of his generation, although a trio of movies that includes this, The Longest Day and The Miracle of Father Malachia more than exemplify his passionate conviction. The key to them is their humanity – uncultivated and pure, where his characters are generally allowed to follow their goals without always recognizing the threats lurking in the shadows. Those possibilities are generally suggested in his knack for creating subtle technical cues. Consider the music riffs of the first act of this film, for instance: ominous and sparse, they act as non-verbal warnings against what is to come. Or how he begins his story with wide establishing shots and then moves gradually inward towards the last scenes, focusing primarily on close-ups or individual actions to suggest how all things must eventually be localized. His most prominent lesson may be that we all belong to a civilization built on the edge of a razor, where the slightest threat will inspire the unwitting sacrifice of the innocent. But by the time he comes to dealing with that certainty in the lens of his intrusive camera, he has gone far past the point of sympathy and reached a howling cry of outrage.
Written by DAVID KEYES
"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which is to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at Criterion.com.
"The Bridge" is the twenty-first article in this series.
"The Bridge" is the twenty-first article in this series.