The Bridge (1959) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is a landmark film of post-war German cinema. Filmmakers (and perhaps audiences as well) were reluctant to confront World War II and its legacy in the years after the surrender to the Allies. Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 film, adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Manfred Gregor (the pen name of journalist Gregor Dorfmeister), was the first major German film to take on the subject directly, and it did so with a searing portrait of young soldiers unprepared for the realities of war thanks to the fantasies of Nazi propaganda.
Set in a rural German town in 1945, in the final days of the war as the Allies were converging on Berlin, it follows the story of seven high school boys who still believe in the German propaganda of duty and sacrifice to the Fatherland. They can’t wait until they are called up and they get their wish and undergo a single day of basic training before the company is called to the front. The boys are Volkststurm, not regular army but a kind of Hitler Youth militia created in the last gasps of German defense, a Hail Mary pass that basically throws unprepared kids into the jaws of war. Utterly unprepared for battle, their commander orders them to “guard” a bridge that is slated to be blown up in the German retreat. It’s an assignment meant to keep them out of combat but they turn into patriotic zealots guided by the “wisdom” gleaned from propaganda films and rousing speeches and dismissive of the experience of veterans who attempt to offer advice.
The Bridge doesn’t debate politics or acknowledge the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity, and that works for this story. While there is no literal condemnation of the Nazis, it’s a bankrupt ideology as far as the citizens are concerned and the sole representative of the party is an opportunist and hypocrite preparing to flee with his mistress and his loot. There are no true believers in the exhausted soldiers retreating from the Allied advancement, merely survivors hoping to survive a little longer.
Director Bernhard Wicki is more interested in the cultural climate of Germany in the final days of the war as seen from the isolated bubble of a Bavarian town where the only men left too old, too young, or medically unfit for combat. The women run the shops and farms and the adults are resigned to Germany’s defeat as the bombs drop ever closer to the city and word of the Allied advance is met with a shrug. There’s no love left for Hitler and an impotent hopelessness hangs over the adult survivors but the teenage boys are still in thrall to the fantasy of German supremacy of Nazi propaganda and believe they can turn the war around and save their country. That makes them arrogant, convinced that their idealism is truer than the experience of the women holding families together, old men who survived World War I, even veteran soldiers with a realistic perspective on the state of the war.
None of the kids are particularly distinctive—it’s an ensemble piece and they are have their place in it—but neither are they merely simple types. The chapter leader (Hitler Youth is not actually mentioned but that’s surely what he leads) is a little bullying but never really a bully, the barber’s son is in love with an older woman but is paralyzed by shyness until he throws a tantrum when he finds her with someone else, the son of the Nazi Party politico is disgusted by his father’s hypocrisy and cowardice, and so on. The pecking order of their little society remains as they try to organize themselves on the bridge and slip into playing soldier instead of being soldiers, but the arrival of the first tank shocks them out of their fantasies.
This is a miniature, a portrait of 1945 Germany in microcosm, and Wicki eases us into the horror of combat by first focusing on quiet village life, where the boys are relatively protected from the reality of battle. Even the falling bombs are more of a curiosity than a threat; they race to see how close the last one fell and if it left a crater. They are all bluster and immature impulsiveness, ruled by hormonally-charged emotions and a distorted idea of national service. That’s fine for afterschool games but a bad combination with no military training and only fantasies of war glory as a model of military comportment. Left alone to face the Americans (the chaos of the German retreat ends up killing the sole veteran soldier left behind to watch over the boys), they are no better than kids playing war with live rounds and discovering that there isn’t any glory in dying for your country. Wicki captures a sense of panic and desperation as the boys do their best to act like soldiers in the face of overwhelming forces. It’s a war film in close up, a minor skirmish in the scheme of things over a bridge with no tactical value, and it makes their sacrifice utterly meaningless by any measure.
It also makes an interesting contrast to how East Germany confronted World War II. The communist government immediately produced anti-Nazi dramas that condemned the militarism of the country. The new East Germany, after all, was now part of the socialist ideal, a break with the corrupt values of the old Germany. Communist Germany acknowledged the crimes by distancing itself (the government if not the citizens) from complicity in the war. West Germany didn’t have any such façade of separation and it took years to work up to this kind of direct engagement. As a result, it had a great impact on the next generation of German filmmakers.
In German with English subtitles, on Blu-ray and DVD. The new 2K digital restoration is mastered from the original 35mm negative and a 35mm duplicate negative. It looks superb, a clean, sharp image with strong contrasts and no evident damage. It features a new 22-minute interview with Gregor Dorfmeister, who wrote the original autobiographical novel and discusses his real-life experience and the screen adaptation, and a ten-minute interview with filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff on the film’s impact in Germany, and an archival interview with director Bernhard Wicki discussing the film on a German TV talk show in 1989. Also includes a clip from the 2007 documentary Against the Grain: The Film Legend of Bernhard Wicki directed by Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss (the filmmaker’s widow) and a fold-out insert with an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty.