The Bridge, 1959, Bernhard Wicki
Anti-war films are not easy to pull off. Some of the best of them, like Rossellini’s War Trilogy, Battle of Algiers and even the American Best Years of our Lives are so effective because they were produced shortly after the end of the war. The wounds are personal and fresh. The pain is evident in all of these examples. Sure, there is a long list of fantastic war films to come out years after the war, although many of those use prior wars as analogies to current conflicts, but there are many more misfires (pun intended). The first two examples I gave above were shot in neorealistic style, and the third could be argued to be as close to neorealism that a film could get during the Hollywood studio system. The Bridge was also in the neorealistic style, but it was produced fifteen years after the war was over.
Germany is different. Nazism had dominated society up until the war, and Third Reich fascist rhetoric (or propaganda) had become adopted by the entire country. Nazism was celebrated, as many cinephiles have seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The ending of the war and Nazism forever altered German society, and the manner of thinking needed time to change. Berlin was occupied for a long time, and eventually the nation was split during the Cold War. Even though there were forward thinkers in West Germany, many of the older generations still clung onto vestiges of Nazism and German heroism. As I learned in the supplements for this disc, there were German war films being made prior to The Bridge, but they were often celebrating German heroism. They may not have been completely pro-war, but they certainly were not decidedly anti-war as Wicki’s film would be.
Keep in mind that I will spoil major plot points and the ending of the film. Read and look at the images at your own risk.
The first two acts of the film are primarily spent on exposition, establishing the foundation of the children as they are drafted, their families, school, lovers, and so on. Even the scenes as they enter the military are mostly expositional, as we are still learning the circumstances of the war, the motives of those in command, and the feelings of the children as they enter this frightening chapter of their lives.
The film also incorporates many locations early in the film that will come into play later. The most notable of these is the actual bridge. We get to see the bridge as it would normally be used, as a center of the town that citizens use as a walkway and meeting point. During the early scenes, it is portrayed as an area of peace. Even when a bomb is dropped and misses the bridge, people are hardly fearful of it. The children even make jokes about.
Thus far, much of the early response to this Criterion release seems to be positive, but one individual whose opinion I respect was not singing the same tune. While he enjoyed the last third, he took exception with the first two acts, finding them dull and uninteresting. He also compared it unfavorably to All Quiet on the Western Front, which also came to my mind. There are so many parallels that I think the filmmakers must have had Remarque’s book or Milestone’s film in mind. Ths friend makes valid points and I appreciate his critical thinking, and in some ways I agree, but my take is different.
The heavy exposition is used to show the generational gap between the children and the adults. We have to remember that they had all been indoctrinated into the Nazi system, but on different levels. The children are still naïve about the world. Many of them had been in the Nazi youth and had learned the propaganda about honoring and protecting their fatherland in school and elsewhere. The kids may all have different personality types and upbringing – wild and rebellious or tame and obedient, lower class or upper class – but they all share the same feelings about bravery and patriotism. Even if they are fearful and apprehensive about leaving their homes, getting their draft cards is not disappointing. Many of them are excited by the prospect of going to war and fighting like adults, without realizing the grim realities that would follow. They are innocent. They are dumb. They are just kids.
The adults, on the other hand, are not so naïve and innocent. While they all undoubtedly love and care for their children in their own way, they are all imperfect and corrupted in some capacity. One family is broken because of what appears to be marital infidelity. One of the upper class fathers has bought into the Nazi system to the extent that he benefits from the party. This is one of the most powerful of the early scenes, as the son throws this privileged position in his face, lashing out at him for being a disgrace. The father retorts by reminding his child how the military is about to break him. He calls his child a “snotty brat,” and says, “they’ll make a man out of you.” The child gets the last word, “a man like you?” The kids, however invested in the system, are aware of the decadence that comes with age.
A reoccurring theme that follows the film along at every stage is the fact that children are being sent to war. One of the fathers laments that the children “belong in kindergarten, not the barracks.” The child takes the meaning as an insult to his masculinity, and the use of the word ‘kindergarten’ will come back later in the story. Everyone knows that they are in the last throes of the war, and they are ashamed that children are being thrown out there as pawns as an act of futility. The school teacher approaches the military Captain, trying to reason with him to not use these children as cannon fodder. He realizes that the ideology he has been stuffing into their brains has culminated in them being used as sacrificial lambs. The Captain is obstinate, but the seed is planted, and again this comes back into play later.
After a single day in training for the kids, the military installation is notified of a breach. The Americans are encroaching and will arrive in the town. Every able person, whether seasoned or brand new, are told to take up arms and not let his country down. He addresses all of the military, and reminds the youngsters that even though they are not experienced, that the German way is to always go forward, not backward, and not to forget that they are being charged to protect the fatherland. We see uncomfortable looks, both from the crowd and from other officers. They all know what this means. We as the audience know that the officers are pressing the buttons of the programming that the children had undergone at school. This is phrasing they can relate to. They want to be men and do their duty. Wicki is attacking the fact that children were led to believe such things.
Through a mishap of communication, the boys end up on the bridge without supervision. They are surprised that they are ordered to defend the same bridge that they walk over everyday, with their homes within walking distance. They eat food together, laugh together, mostly oblivious to the horrors of war that await them. They even ignore a warning from a citizen passerby. It isn’t until they see a truck of troops coming back, specifically the gravely wounded troops, that it finally dawns on them what their near future could hold.
When an aerial attacker shows up nearby and one kid hits the deck, the children lambast him for his cowardice. Soon after, a viable air threat heads straight for them. The entire company hits the deck except for that one brave soldier, proving that he is just as brave as all of them. This misguided thinking costs him his life.
The onslaught continues as tanks appear within the town. The kids, without any orders to respond to, take it upon themselves to ferociously defend the bridge. They even succeed in taking down a tank, but the Americans realize that they are fighting children. One of the Americans even calls at the kids in English to stop. “Kid, what are you doing in this friggin’ war?” he yells. Good question. Another American says, “we don’t fight kids. Stop! Go home!”
The children do not listen to any of these warnings, just like they hadn’t heard any of the other ones. Wicki is saying that it was the system that placed these ideas in their head, and shielded them from the true horrors of war. When they finally see the horror, it is too late. They shriek and cry, but their fates are sealed. It is a tragedy, and their blood is on the German machine’s hands. Coming in 1959, this film at least to the younger generation is a way of processing and coming to terms with how misguided the older generation was. The Bridge, however tragic, is a catharsis.
Film Rating: 8/10
Gregor Dorfmeister: Author of the novel in 1958 in 2015.
The book was a fictionalized account of his experiences as a teenager at the end of the war. He was 29 when it was published. He was 86 during the interview.
He lived the situation. They were high school classmates that were ordered to defend a bridge. He remembers getting his draft notice at 16 and being excited. He was in the Hitler Youth because he enjoyed the time in sports, but of course they were being groomed to become soldiers.
He remembers hearing the sound of the American soldiers coming into town, which he says was captured perfectly in the film. In reality they threw eight grenades at the tank, and two of them hit. He saw an American GI leaving his tank with his back completely ablaze. The experience horrified him and made him a pacifist for the rest of his life.
The premise of the book was to show that they were caught up in the Third Reich, like “cogs in the wheel.”
Bernhard Wicki: 1989 excerpt from German TV.
Wicki graduated in 1938 and was arrested by the Nazis before the Kristallnacht, and was then sent to a concentration camp for 10 months. It is a difficult memory for him to reflect upon, but because he was 18 probably made it easier. He ended up making political films not just because of these experiences, but mostly because this was something he knew.
The interviewer called The Bridge “drastic realism,” which Wicki disagreed with. He likened it to neorealism, and noted Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, who were his models. The success of the film became a burden on him professionally because it set expectations high. People wanted him to make a film of its caliber.
Volker Schlöndorff: 2015 Criterion Interview
The Bridge was his cinematic role model. There had been a number of war films in the 1950s, most of which were about “the good German” soldiers. The younger generation did not want to see the movies. Wicki’s film resembled some of those films, but the spirit was different. The Bridge is about death being an abstract notion and then the realization of it as a reality.
To the young filmmakers in the 1960s, Wicki was a something of a Godfather. At the time, they had reservations about the older generation. Most of them stayed away from the old actors, even Wicki (except for Wenders in Paris, TX. They all liked him and visited him, but few of them worked with him.
Against the Grain: The Film Legend of Bernhard Wicki: Excerpt from 2007 documentary with behind-the-scenes footage.
The Germans did not have suitable tanks,. And the Americans would not give them until they read the script. Initially Wicki did not want to work on the movie because the novel was about German bravery. He had to change certain elements of the tone.
The film because famous worldwide and was notable as a respectful anti-war film that showed a sea change. It had political implications.
Criterion Rating: 8.0