February 11, 2016
The Bridge – Germany, 1959
In the final moments of Bernhard Wicki’s powerful and disturbing 1959 film The Bridge, it is revealed that the film is based on an incident that occurred on April 27, 1945, one which is not mentioned in any of the official military communiqués. The film implies that this omission reflects the military’s view that the event was insignificant; however, I have another theory. Occurring just three days prior to the suicide of Adolf Hitler and only ten days before Germany would officially surrender to the Allied Powers, just what would the average German have made of the events depicted in the film? After all, a truthful accounting of the incident would have revealed military ineptness, ranks so depleted that the army resorted to drafting children, and a series of blunders that resulted in the deaths of six young men who in better times would have been more worried about making a good impression on their first date than in saving every inch of the Fatherland. Better, someone likely thought, to cover this up, and avoid the inevitable fallout.
The film begins in a small town that has understandably soured of conflict in the waning days of the Second World War. That the war is reaching its end is something that the majority of the town’s residents seem not only acutely aware of but also eager to have happen. In the film’s opening moments, Wicki gives us a picture of an area that is apparently so close to the war that an errant bomb could drop on it at any moment. Perhaps this is why we see evidence of a growing sense of panic, as if the war is steadily creeping toward them. One mother tries to get her headstrong son to leave the area and stay with her sister; another man sends his wife away on a train without even giving her time to say goodbye to her son, and everywhere one looks, Nazi officials appear to be packing up and departing as rapidly as they can. A lot can read into the fact that civilians are being left to fend for themselves.
The film introduces us to seven young high school classmates, each of them as die-hard patriotic as the next. Theirs is a generation that has feasted on official government propaganda for most of their lives, and, as such, they look forward to the day when their number is called. In one scene, three of them study a classroom map that displays the positions of German soldiers and make mental calculations about where they will go next and what strategy they will use to achieve victory. At the same time, they hope it doesn’t end before they get the opportunity to be part of it. Their teacher, a man who was once filled with the same nationalistic fervor as they are, tries to temper their enthusiasm for war with brief remarks that reveal his acceptance of an inevitable German defeat, yet instead of hearing his words and understanding the sentiments behind them, his students question his patriotism, and he has no choice but to backtrack slightly and assume a safer position.
The first half of the film is devoted to establishing the characters of the seven classmates, and one of the things I appreciated most about this part is how we are able to see in them aspects of an average, everyday teenager. These are youngsters who clown around, build tree houses, get excited over alcohol, and develop crushes on young ladies, and yet even as the film builds them up in this way, it never loses sight of what makes them different – their glorification of the war and their earnest pursuit of a way into it. A scene in which they receive news that their draft notice has arrived is heartbreaking in that it captures one of the follies of youth – the unbridled eagerness to grow up far too soon. It reminded me somewhat of the scene in All Quiet on the Western Front in which students tear up their books and throw the scraps into the air. As pieces of textbook confetti reigns upon them, it is impossible not to notice the symbolism, that the seeds of knowledge are being torn assunder in a mad rush to fight. All Quiet is set during World War I. Watching The Bridge, I was shocked at how little had changed.
The Bridge’s final act is brutal, confusing, and tragic, and Wicki pulls no punches. With each shot fired and each rocket propelled, youth and innocence die a little bit more. In these scenes, Wicki focuses his camera on the dirtying faces of the seven youngsters, so bright eyed and clean just days earlier, and as their skirmish progresses, they become less distinguishable as shock and grim reality sweep across their faces, practically wiping away all of their individuality and virtuousness. This, Wicki appears to be telling us, is war’s toll on man, and it made me recall the snide, jaded remarks of more seasoned veteran soldiers earlier in the film, some of whom talked about fleeing at the sound of the first shot. In these soldiers, we see what one can become after years of being in all-out scuffles and repeatedly coming so close to death; that same combination of world-weary numbness and cynicism is what awaits each of the seven young men who so enthusiastically and stoically march off to war. They are the heartbreaking embodiment of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s memorable quote Theirs [is] not to reason why, theirs [is] but to do and die. With The Bridge, Wicki shows us the terrible consequences that await when those whose job it is to reason why become so caught up with winning that individuals become insignificant and the ends, however impractical, are used to justify some pretty awful means. It is a film I will never forget. (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection)
*The Bridge is in German and English with English subtitles.
*The Bridge was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.