The Bridge (Die Brücke)

Director: Bernhard Wicki
Screenplay:Michael Mansfeld & Karl-Wilhelm Vivier (based on the novel by Manfred Gregor)
Stars: Folker Bohnet (Hans Scholten), Fritz Wepper (Albert Mutz), Michael Hinz (Walter Forst), Frank Glaubrecht (Jurgen Borchert), Karl Michael Balzer (Karl Horber), Volker Lechtenbrink (Klaus Hager), Günther Hoffmann (Sigi Bernhard), Cordula Trantow (Franziska), Wolfgang Stumpf (Stern), Günter Pfitzmann (Heilmann), Heinz Spitzner (Fröhlich), Siegfried Schürenberg (Lt. Colonel), Ruth Hausmeister (Mrs. Mutz), Eva Vaitl (Mrs. Borchert), Edith Schultze-Westrum (Mother Bernhard)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: West Germany
The Bridge Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The BridgeBernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (Die Brücke) is a devastating portrayal of enthusiasm for the glories of war, fueled in equal parts by youthful naiveté and political indoctrination, crashing against the realities of human bloodshed. The film, which is set in rural Germany at the very end of World War II, begins with excitement over an Allied bomb that has fallen near the small bridge leading into a provincial Bavarian town—everyone wants to see the crater—and ends on that same bridge after many bombs have fallen, bullets and grenades have been fired, and lives have been lost. What at first seems like a game, where violence and death are abstractions, ends in stark reality, the brutality of which is accentuated by the fact that the violence has all been in vain. At a time when the German film industry was busy with melodramatic war films depicting “the good German,” Wicki’s film was a clarion call, a sharp rebuke to simplistic ideas of heroism and a reminder of the pointlessness of so many deaths under the Nazi flag.

The film’s collective protagonist is a group of seven German schoolboys, all age 16, who are drafted in the last weeks of April 1945, when Germany’s defeat was all but assured and Hitler’s regime was desperately putting any able body, young or old, on the front lines. For these boys, all of their formative years, from middle childhood into adolescence, were spend in the Third Reich, where fervid nationalism and commitment to Hitler were indoctrinated to the point that they truly believed that defending a square foot of German soil—no matter how uselessly—was the equivalent of defending Germany itself. Thus, when they receive their draft notices, it is an exciting moment of confirmation that they, too, will get to serve the Fatherland. The first half of the film depicts them in their everyday lives, and there are small subplots involving one boy’s shy flirtation with the only girl in their class, their collective discovery of a cache of stolen liquor hidden on the banks of the river, and another boy’s disillusionment when he discovers that his father is having an affair with the secretary on whom the boy has a crush. These are just fragments of experience that add up to the notion of youth and naiveté, underscoring the idea that calling these boys to arms is nothing short of heinous.

Yet, called they are, and with only a day of training by older, weary officers who don’t believe anymore, they are to be sent to the frontlines. However, their teacher, a pacifist who was spared military duty due to a heart condition, appeals to their company commander to keep them out of battle, which he does by stationing them on the small stone bridge in their hometown. It is meant to be a safe assignment, but when their commanding officer is inadvertently killed, the boys take it upon themselves to defend the bridge against the advancing American troops, even though the plan for the German military is to blow it up. Thus, these seven schoolboys, steeped in militaristic propaganda and determined to prove both their personal mettle and their devotion to country, initiate a bloody confrontation that ultimately serves no purpose. The bridge, which only days earlier had been a place to play and flirt and talk, becomes a gratuitous battleground that literally and symbolically comes to stand for the futility of war fought for the wrong reasons.

The Bridge was based on an autobiographical novel by journalist Gregor Dorfmeister (writing under the name Manfred Gregor), who fictionalized his own experience as a teenage draftee at the end of the war defending two bridges very much like the one in the film. For Wicki, an actor-turned-director who had only made one film the previous year, Gregor’s novel was a “hymn to German courage” and “a memorial to his friends who had fallen in the war,” and he approached the story in quite an antithetical manner by focusing on the futility of misdirected heroism. Wicki is clearly a man of true conviction who bore plenty of scars from the Nazi era. When he was 18 he was arrested by Nazis for his leftist political activities and spent 10 months in a concentration camp, an event about which he did not speak for decades because he didn’t want to exploit or capitalize on it. Knowing that now, we can see his experience imprinted all over The Bridge, a film that bears a great deal of anger and ends with a sense of calculated despondency. Even if some of its earlier passages rely too heavily on coming-of-age clichés and stock adult characters, the film’s overall impact is undeniably powerful.

Despite being only Wicki’s second film, The Bridge made a significant impact both in Germany, where its against-the-grain antiwar stance caused some controversy (although it was given a special award at the Berlin Film Festival), and internationally, where is racked up a host of awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and an award from the United Nations for contributing to peace. Wicki modeled his aesthetic approach on Italian neorealism, which certainly informed his casting of unknown amateur actors who were still in their teenage years, although there is a strong undercurrent of German expressionism throughout the film, as well, which elevates some of its strongest scenes with an infusion of dreamlike strangeness. The violence of the battle scenes is quite intense, and Wicki relies heavily on a sense of visual realism, especially in depicting the bloody, eviscerating damage done to human bodies by bullets and grenades. Unlike many war films of the time that romanticized death on the battlefield, Wicki shows it be both gruesome and heartbreaking. The film is never so powerful as when we see these young boys finally realizing that their adolescent ideals of battlefield glory have been betrayed by the brutal realities of bullets and shrapnel.

The Bridge

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioGerman Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with writer Gregor Dorfmeister
  • Video interview with filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff about the film’s impact on German cinema
  • Video interview from 1989 with director Bernhard Wicki
  • Excerpt from a 2007 documentary featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot
  • Essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 23, 2015

    The Bridge has been available in Region 1 on DVD for several years now, but Criterion’s new Blu-ray marks the film’s debut in high-definition. The 1080p image was scanned from the original 35mm camera negative and a duplicate 35mm negative and digitally restored using MTI’s DRS and Digital Vision’s Phoenix. The resulting image is generally very strong. There is some inconsistency in sharpness, which appears to be inherent in the source material (some shots feel a little soft while others are razor sharp, and I wonder if the softer shots came from the duplicate negative). There is a lot of good detail, which allows you to see the texture in the clothing and the tiniest bits of dirt on the soldiers’ faces. The black-and-white cinematography is well served with excellent contrast and strong black levels. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the optical soundtrack negative and digitally restored, which gives us a nice, clean track. The sounds effects in the final battle sequence will probably strike modern audiences as a bit thin and lacking in depth, especially with the strangely expressionist manner in which the sound of exploding bombs seems to come just after we see the bomb explode. However, it appears to be an accurate representation of the original sound mix.
    I was completely unfamiliar with The Bridge when I first saw it, and I found Criterion’s supplements to be particularly helpful in giving the film some context. There are two new interviews included on the disc: a 22-minute interview with writer Gregor Dorfmeister, who is now in his 80s and recounts with great poignancy his wartime experiences and how he came to write the autobiographical novel on which the film is based, and a 9-minute interview with filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), who talks about the film’s impact on German cinema, especially the New German Cinema filmmakers with whom he is associated. From the archives we get a 15-minute excerpt from an interview with director Bernhard Wicki conducted for a Sunday morning talk show in 1989. Wicki, who has a very John Huston-esque air to him, speaks about his personal experiences during the war and what he was trying to accomplish in making The Bridge. We also get a 10-minute excerpt from Verstörung - und eine Art von Poesie. Die Filmlegende Bernhard Wicki, a feature-length 2007 documentary by Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss, Wicki’s widow, about her husband’s life and career. The excerpt focuses entirely on The Bridge and includes footage shot during the film’s production, footage of the young actors’ auditions, and footage of Wicki accepting his award at the Berlin Film Festival. Seeing the excerpts from the film in this documentary, which look extremely soft and washed out, should give you additional appreciation of how good the film looks in Criterion’s new transfer.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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