The antiwar films of the defeated have a particular kind of melancholy. In the late 1950s, the winners of the most recent war produced an extraordinary number of good movies about the horrors of combat and the lethal inanities of command. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory (1957), Anthony Mann’s Men in War (1957), and Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) all—in their different ways, and with their different historical settings—make persuasive cases for war’s futility. But none are as purely sad as Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge. The action of the film, which opened in West Germany in the autumn of 1959, takes place in a small, pretty Bavarian town in the desperate last days of the Second World War, as seven very raw Volkssturm recruits attempt to defend an old stone bridge against the overwhelming force of a conquering American army. The German soldiers have limited resources and no experience; they were called up just the day before, and the sergeant assigned to command the little squad is dead. The bridge, as the audience knows but they do not, is to be held for only a short time, before being blown up. They are sixteen years old, which means that they are at least as afraid of being thought cowards as they are of dying.
And they are, to a boy, heartbreakingly ordinary, no better or worse than any German kid of their age, their sex, and their awful moment in history could be expected to be: their heads are filled with “idealistic” nationalism and fantasies of battlefield glory. The Volkssturm was not regular army but a kind of militia mandated by Hitler and his ministers during the death throes of the Third Reich; it was composed largely of members of the Hitler Youth. What doubts, if any, the teenage soldiers may have about their solemn duty to the Fatherland’s war effort they keep to themselves. There wouldn’t be anyone to tell, anyway: their town is nearly depleted of adult men; their mothers and their teachers are too frightened to confide in; and their schoolmates, male and female, seem to share their warped dreams. Even when they’re together on that bridge, trying to be a unit, every one of them is terrifically, inescapably alone.
The film is based on a 1958 novel of the same name by Gregor Dorfmeister (using the pen name Manfred Gregor), who as a young man, in the spring of 1945, found himself in a situation much like that of the boys in The Bridge. According to The Axmann Conspiracy, Scott Andrew Selby’s 2012 history of the Third Reich’s chaotic endgame, Dorfmeister was conscripted into the Volkssturm at sixteen and, after minimal training, wound up defending two bridges in and around his hometown, Bad Tölz, in the company of six schoolmates; he was the only survivor. Like the boys in the film, he and his comrades managed to disable an American tank, one of whose occupants staggered away wounded, with smoke rising from his body, and, Dorfmeister has said, “that was the moment when I became a pacifist.” At a certain point, he sensibly abandoned his post, and when he returned to the scene of the battle the next day, all his friends were dead. “We were just kids,” he told an interviewer years later. “We were used by the Nazis as cannon fodder.”
In the novel, Dorfmeister streamlines the facts for dramatic impact: his characters guard only one bridge, and none of the boys leave before the fighting is over. The movie makes the action more straightforward yet, eliminating the book’s rather perfunctory framing device, which presents the story as the extended reminiscence of the sole survivor as he visits the scene of battle ten years later, and reducing the recruits’ training period from a couple of weeks to less than twenty-four hours. The smartest decision Wicki and his writers made was to tell the boys’ story chronologically, rather than dole out the details of their premilitary lives in flashbacks, as Dorfmeister does. It’s a daring choice, in a way, because it delays putting the boys in uniform for nearly half the film, and getting them into combat for even longer. For forty-five minutes, we’re watching not a war movie but what Germans of the time called a Jugendfilm (youth film), in which fresh-faced youngsters tease and bond and deal with the petty problems of school, family, and confusing first loves.
Laying out the narrative in this way pays off handsomely for Wicki, though, because the transition, when it comes midway through, feels shatteringly abrupt. After all that time watching these seven boys wander through their picturesque town in clean white shirts and humiliating short pants, to see them suddenly hitting the dirt in full Volkssturm regalia, complete with helmets and sinister black boots, is a shock, visually and emotionally. Although the movie’s style doesn’t change radically, the way the characters look does, and Wicki is patient enough to allow that alteration to simply sink in to the viewer’s consciousness, one small bit of wrongness to prepare the way for the greater wrongs to follow.
Throughout, Wicki’s direction is understated and fluid; he favors longish tracking shots, and they’re especially effective in The Bridge’s first half, in which the odd, tense wartime life of the town is depicted with a pleasing fullness, the camera picking up detail after detail almost casually as it moves. (The film was shot mostly in the Bavarian town of Cham.) During the action sequences in the second half of the movie, the cutting necessarily becomes more aggressive, but the slow, sorrowful tracks never completely disappear. They’re used to beautiful effect in a long nighttime scene in which the sergeant leaves the bridge and gets himself killed and the boys wait, in vain, for his return; the jumpy, bored young men smoke languidly, stab halfheartedly at their cans of rations, speculate about the action they expect with the dawn, and bicker a little about what real soldiers should be doing. The night is foggy, moonless: a world that seems to have no idea how it has come to precisely this, seven scared and lonely boys armed with rifles and pistols and a handful of mortars guarding a bridge of almost no importance. Wicki’s camera drifts from one character to another with a sort of dazed curiosity, searching for something that could make sense of this situation and knowing that nothing will.
It takes a confident director to bring off effects like that. Wicki’s assured style, in just the second film he’d directed, is nearly miraculous. (His first, a documentary called Warum sind sie gegen uns?—Why Are They Against Us?—had come out a year earlier.) Although he was a relatively inexperienced director, he was well trained in the theatrical arts, having studied in Berlin before the war with the famous actor Gustaf Gründgens; he appeared as an actor in two dozen films in the fifties. Wicki also had the advantage, for this film, of not being tainted with a Nazi past. He was born in Austria, in 1919, and in the late thirties he was interned for a time in a German concentration camp, apparently because of his leftist connections; it’s said that his release was facilitated by Gründgens, who was a favorite of the party. (That actor’s cozy relationship with the Third Reich was the subject of István Szabó’s tragic 1981 film Mephisto.) In The Bridge, Wicki looks at his characters’ youthful delusions with both a fierce skepticism and a kind of paternal sympathy. The film’s calm, scrupulously ambivalent tone is perhaps its greatest achievement.
Almost equally remarkable is the movie’s daring refusal to single out one of the seven boys as a point-of-view character, a figure for the audience to identify with. Not even Albert Mutz (Fritz Wepper), the boy who lives to tell the tale and is presumably the character who represents Dorfmeister himself, gets privileged treatment from Wicki. Albert is actually less distinctive in the film than several of the other kids, like Sigi (Günther Hoffmann), who’s slight and lively and younger-seeming than the rest, or Jürgen (Frank Glaubrecht), who’s the son of a high-ranking officer and whose martial fantasies are the most toxic. The closest thing to a hero among them might be the tall, sad-eyed Hans (Folker Bohnet), who seems more mature than his companions but in the end betrays the puzzlement and frustration of a child. The Bridge never forgets that these seven sixteen-year-olds are not fully formed people and that, because of the war, six of them never will be. The one who’s spared is, at this point in his young life, nothing special; it’s as if he has been picked at random.
The stunned evenness of The Bridge’s tone—its quality of disbelieving, held-in sorrow—probably helped the film succeed with audiences outside of Germany, who must have appreciated the absence of bathos and recognized in the muffled sadness some of their own still-unresolved feelings about the traumas they’d endured not long enough ago. The movie won awards both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar in 1960. (It lost to Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus.) Wicki became, briefly, a hot director. After one more German film, he was assigned by Darryl F. Zanuck to direct the German-language segments of 20th Century Fox’s sprawling D-day epic The Longest Day (1962); Wicki’s sequences are the best in the film, by a sizable margin. But his next two English-language studio films, The Visit (1964) and Morituri (1965), didn’t create much of a stir among either critics or audiences, and he returned to Europe. Up to his death in 2000, he was a busy actor—appearing in films by Ivan Passer (Crime and Passion), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Despair), Andrzej Wajda (A Love in Germany), and Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas)—and only occasionally a director, most frequently for West German television.
It’s a pity he didn’t direct more movies. Neither The Visit, an adaptation of a Friedrich Dürrenmatt morality play, nor Morituri, a wartime spy thriller with Marlon Brando as an anti-Nazi German saboteur, has anything like the force and conviction of The Bridge, but they’re unmistakably the work of an unusually skillful filmmaker: the black-and-white compositions are crisp and expressive; the camera movements are sinuous; the crowd scenes are brilliantly staged; the tone is steady, dispassionate; and the undertone is mysteriously mournful. It was only in The Bridge, though, that Wicki’s style meshed so seamlessly with his subject. He is, in this still-striking film, a kind of artist that doesn’t appear often, in the movies or anywhere else: a clear-eyed poet of defeat.