Grading Historical Movies: Bernhard Wicki’s “The Bridge” (1959)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The fourth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 The Bridge.

Overall grade from 45 students: A-

Review One

By Adam Ring

The Bridge

Letter Grade: A

 

Some of the most revealing aspects of war can be seen while examining how children respond and react to it. Bernhard Wicki’s film does a particularly noble job at capturing how teens’ attitudes and perceptions of war evolve over time, based upon whether they are outside observers or actually the ones fighting it.

At the beginning of the movie, the audience is introduced to seven boys, all whom attend the local school in a small German town. What is particularly interesting is how they all seem indifferent to the seriousness of the war—like it is just something that is happening in the world, but not directly affecting their lives. Sure, they become excited and fascinated when a bomb explodes near the bridge leading out of the town, but the main idea here is that all the boys seem to have more pressing matters going on. For example, Karl has a crush on his father’s assistant and becomes mortified and jealous when he catches them sleeping together in bed; Klaus, another boy, is shown to be someone who is oblivious to his classmate’s constant flirting; Walter has a deep hatred of his father, who is fleeing town with another woman after sending his wife away “to safety”. Why does any of this matter? Because— filmmaker Bernhard Wicki wants to introduce these children as just the average schoolboy, caught up in normal and typical drama. This makes what is about to happen to them all that much more impactful.

When the boys receive notice they will be drafted into the war, their reactions further reinforce their naivety—all of them seem excited, to the point of making jokes about going off into battle. They still cannot comprehend the seriousness of World War II, but this is understandable given their age and “distance” from its’ most salient impacts. Sigi’s mother seems to be the one to freak out the most, but Walter and Karl are both so mad at their fathers it is hard to assess just how worried their parents are, if they are even worried at all. Interestingly, the boy’s teacher seems to be the one most looking out for their well-being, and that can be seen when he acts the commanding officer at basic training if the boys could avoid battle.

Sure enough, the boys are placed to guard the bridge near their town, and their attitude is still aloof. It is interesting to hear them talk about how German deserters should be shot, which is quite a mighty statement to make considering their ignorance and lack of any real battle experience. The climax in the movie is when Sigi is shot dead by an American plane, which finally is enough to scare the crap out of the boys and make them realize what they are really getting into. The saddest part about Sigi’s death is that it was arguably caused by the boys making fun of him, which made Sigi avoid taking cover out of wanting to appear brave. The film really gets raw when the boys are in the “trenches” and getting fired at by the Americans. As more of them die, the boys now have come to fully realize the horrors of war, but at this point—it is too late. At the end of the film, out of the seven boys, only Albert remains.

At the end of the day, this movie was good taken on a scene-by-scene basis, but it becomes amazing when the audience begins to understand Bernhard Wicki’s main takeaway point—war is bad…period. It causes death and destruction on unimaginable levels. Most of the time, many of the deaths are in vain, and forgotten shortly afterward. But as bad as war is for grownups, it is even more horrifying for children. Nothing is more terrible than children dying from war, especially when most of the death that occurs could have been prevented if the kids had taken it seriously. But that’s just the point—kids are kids.  They don’t see the world as clearly as adults do, and in this case, at least for the seven boys this movie focused on—they paid a dear price for it.

Review Two

By Megan Drown

The Bridge

 

Letter Grade: A

 

Die Bruecke, a West German film directed by Bernhard Wicki, provides a powerful statement on the wastefulness of war and its destruction of youth. The film follows the stories of seven schoolboys who are enlisted to fight after the Volkssturm (when all German males aged 16 to 60 were called up to fight) during the last days before Germany’s surrender to the United States and the Soviet Union. The boys are tasked with defending a bridge that, unbeknownst to them, is later to be destroyed by the Wehrmacht. Acting as pawns in the Wehrmacht’s game, the boys defend the bridge to the death fighting a trivial battle that would later be deemed insignificant by the military. The deaths of six of the seven boys during this battle serve as a sharp reminder of the sacrifices suffered by Germans at the hands of cowardly politicians and at their own complicity in empowering the Nazi regime.

From the beginning of the film, Wicki craftily develops each character, emphasizing their confrontations with their growing sexualities and their complex and often disturbing relationship with their parents. A good embodiment of a character who is perhaps the most afflicted by his troubled relationship with his father and his sexual desire for a young woman is Karl. Karl is ridden with sexual fantasy over Barbara, who works for his father and is having an affair with his father. When he learns of the affair, he hysterically slut-shames the woman, loudly telling her to get out of their house. When his father reacts he acts disappointed in his son, and tells him to go back to Kindergarten. Ultimately, this troubled relationship between father and son, leads Karl to kill an American soldier who while yelling in words of appeasement in English, says the word “Kindergarten”, the only word in which Karl understands. Believing this to be a misnomer, Karl defiantly shoots the American, and in turn dies himself as the American bleeds out.

The scene in which Karl shoots the American for yelling out the word “Kindergarten” is farcical but also tragic. When Klaus, his former classmate turned soldier, pleads with Karl to shoot the American again as he suffers and bleeds out on the battleground, Klaus doesn’t realize that Karl is, in fact, dead. Klaus then becomes delirious as he shouts at Karl’s dead body telling him “I didn’t mean to hit you, Karl,” and “Hit me back, Karl!” Meanwhile, their comrades Hans and Albert are in the trench beside the pair, being the lone defenders of the bridge after most of their comrades and childhood friends have died, Hans runs out of his trench and into Klaus’s to mollify the aggrieved kid. However, Klaus’s delirium causes him to ultimately run into enemy fire and subsequently die.

In the end, this film renders a meaningful past through its tragic reveal of war through children’s eyes. The motifs of troubled parent/child relationships and emerging sexualities exposes the costs of the war fought by Germany and the youth of these schoolboys who have not even had the opportunity to experience love and intimacy before their untimely deaths.

Review Three

By Joseph Snyderwine

Grade:  B+

 

The Bridge is a powerful movie with an explosive final act that easily could be a considered the ultimate rejection of German militarism. It’s an ambitious film that both makes a dramatic point about the cost of war while also attempting to tell the story of seven German boys. The strengths and the weaknesses in the film both lie in the portrayal of the boys. The seven boys represent different swaths of society, from Sigi, a poor son, to Walter, the son of Nazi leadership. The problem is that while focusing on so many different parts of society the film doesn’t really have time to flesh out all of the characters that well and it is quite difficult to keep track of who is who especially in the film’s climax where the boys take on an American tank brigade. The film also has to fill out a variety of other characters, including the Officer Heilman and their teacher. While the film does an excellent job establishing this many characters it still churns through them. This film also as very odd pacing as a result of this with so much of the film being used to establish who everyone is which leads to a brutal third act where the boys die so quickly.

Overall the film still has remarkable emotional strength. We see the journey of the boys from schoolboy jingoists to proud soldiers to the ending where only Albert makes it out alive. By focusing on sixteen year old children the film is able to realistically portray the emotional trauma of the soldiers who were sent out at the last parts of the war unready to die. The film juxtaposes an exciting battle sequence with the response of the boys sobbing in a trench as they realize they are going to die just as their friends did.  The film directly challenges Germany militarism during an era when West Germany was in the midst of the conscription debate, by reminding the audience of the last time Germany was at war the audience of 1959 saw a sobering reality that they must work to never repeat. As a way of conveying this truth the film portrays war in a brutal graphic variety where it shows blood and damage from the weapons used both by the boys and on the boys. While the film lacks depth for many of the characters its message still strikes true.

 

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