‘The Bridge’ Shows a Forgotten Side of Nazi Germany’s Final Days

The Bridge, which tells the story of the Volkssturm in the final days of the Nazi party, is classic work of art.

In 1959, Bernhard Wicki made The Bridge, Germany’s first antiwar film since the end of World War II. The movie was an international success, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1960. After years of unavailability in the United States, the Criterion Collection has released The Bridge on Blu-ray and DVD so that American audiences can rediscover this historically, culturally, and cinematically important film about the effects of WWII from the German perspective.

Based on journalist Gregor Dorfmeister’s autobiographical novel, The Bridge follows a group of high school boys who are called to defend Germany in the last days of WWII. The boys are ordered to protect the Florian-Geyer-Brücke, an insignificant bridge in the small Bavarian town of Cham. As their parents and teachers fear for their safety, they naively believe that their role in the Volkssturm is important, and they regularly repeat the honor code “a soldier who defends just one square meter of ground defends Germany” to legitimize their service.

The quiet first half of the film revolves around ordinary life in Cham as the boys focus on school, family, friends, and girls. Their childhood is innocent. Any discussions they have of war are defined by a typical teenage obsession with honor and heroism. Like most boys who play GI Joe in the schoolyard, they are too young to comprehend the catastrophic consequences of war.

Overnight, their lives are disrupted when they are thrown into a war for which they are unprepared. Wicki grounds The Bridge in a specific time and place, but war films resonate because the anti-war message is timeless and universal. Too often, powerful governments wage war against other countries, and powerless young people are used as pawns to fight the battles. Of course, a number of wars throughout history have been necessary, but Wicki wants us to contemplate where we should draw the line. As he explains in a 1989 interview included in the bonus features, “To die or to be a hero means absolutely nothing if it’s not for the right cause.”

For example, the young boys in The Bridge are recruited by the Nazi Party at a time when the Party has collapsed. They are chosen simply because there’s no one left in Germany to fight. Their youthful idealism, which most likely stems from being brainwashed by Nazi propaganda, clouds their judgment. They are unable to comprehend the realities of the situation, even as everyone else in Cham senses the futility of their service.

A title card at the end of the film reads, “This event occurred on 27 April 1945.” This date is significant, and the tragic irony shouldn’t escape students of history. On 30 April, three days after the events of the film, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, an act that symbolizes the defeat of the Nazi Party.

Over 7,000 suicides occurred in Germany in 1945. According to historian Christian Goeschel in his article “Suicide at the End of the Third Reich”, these mass suicides show that the Nazi Party “had come to terms with their losses on a very personal and emotional level” (Journal of Contemporary History, 2006, 172). Psychiatrist Erich Menninger-Lerchenthal supports this claim, and in 1947, he proposed that the mass suicides “do not have anything to do with mental illness or some moral and intellectual deviance, but predominantly with the continuity of a heavy political defeat and the fear of being held responsible.” (The European Suicide Problem, 13.)

Different cultures have different conceptions of suicide, but it’s difficult to see the bravery of these mass suicides when we consider the young boys in the Volkssturm who were ordered to defend their Fatherland at all costs. As Hitler and other prominent leaders of the Nazi Party cowardly hid from the consequences of their actions and took their lives when the pressure from outside forces was too high, innocent young soldiers continued to fight for their Führer. Wicki’s defiant anti-war statement is clear: honor codes like “a soldier who defends just one square meter of ground defends Germany” are meaningless when warmongers who create the code hide in a bunker to avoid conflict. The Bridge asks us to honor the young boys who never had a chance, even as we most importantly honor the more than 11 million who were systematically slaughtered by the Nazi Party.

In an interview included in the bonus features, German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff cites The Bridge as a major influence on “New German Cinema”. Wicki, who was briefly imprisoned in a German concentration camp when he was 18 years old for alleged leftist sympathies, had a personal connection to Dorfmeister’s novel, and future German filmmakers such as Schlöndorff responded favorably to Wicki’s anti-war message.

According to Schlöndorff, most German filmmakers in the ‘50s made war films about “the good German”, and Wicki, an Austrian-born artist who spent much of his life in Germany, was the first filmmaker of his generation to undermine this concept. In addition to his radical politics, his neorealist approach to production, as demonstrated by his decision to cast nonprofessional actors as the boys, represented a stylistic breakthrough for German cinema. Wicki inspired members of “New German Cinema” like Schlöndorff to distance themselves from the older generation of German filmmakers who glorified the Nazi Party’s perpetuation of war and refused to reason with what Schlöndorff calls its “self-satisfied” ideology. In opposition to the old guard, “New German Cinema” auteurs collectively made low-budget, politically-charged films, and they valued artistic quality over commercial success.

Criterion’s release of The Bridge will make Wicki’s must-see film more accessible to American audiences. The film has rightfully been revered by German filmmakers for decades, and given its significance, it deserves to be canonized as a classic work of art.

RATING 9 / 10