Die Brücke a.k.a. The Bridge ranks among the great anti-war films, with a searing, resolutely pacifist message that avoids the treacly. As the first big anti-Nazi film to emerge from post-World War II Germany, Bernhard Wicki's 1959 film skillfully harnesses a large cast of characters and big ideas. Adapted from a best-selling autobiographical novel by newsman Gergor Dorfmeister, it tells the story of a group of eager teenaged soldiers getting slaughtered in the war's final days. Acclaimed in its day (Berlin Film Fest and Golden Globe winner; Oscar nominee) yet surprisingly overlooked in recent years, the film has gotten an excellent treatment with Criterion's Blu Ray.
The Bridgeremains a striking statement on the futility of war from the vantage point of the loser. It also stands out in dealing with military's seductiveness to thrill-seeking young men - and the subsequent disappointment that sets in when the guys discover its grim reality (in that respect, the movie shares much in common with Sam Mendes' 2005 Desert Storm opus Jarhead). The seven German teens at the center of the film are high school students in a rural town during the decisive spring of 1945. In a series of smoothly-directed vignettes, we witness the town's residents nervously awaiting the arrival of American troops. Wicki's immediate barrage of anxious characters has a potential for being confusing, but it actually well-conveys the town's high-alert status - and the teenaged boys' jocular, aspirational reaction to the war reaching their doorsteps. Although the reality of the situation is direr than dire, the main characters have so bought into the Nazis' propaganda that they collectively rejoice when all seven guys are drafted on the same day.
Surprisingly for a combat-based war film, The Bridge spends nearly its entire first half establishing the characters and milieu. Long before any gunshots are fired, we get acquainted with the various young men and find that they have different ulterior motives for wanting to join in the effort to stem the American troops' arrival (via the bridge where they boys played as kids). One boy, Sigi (Gunther Hoffmann), joins to prove to the other guys that his puny stature is no hinderance to his fighting ability. Another, Jürgen (Frank Glaubrecht), has a burning desire to make up for the ineffectiveness of his father, a pompous high-ranking officer who sent Jürgen's mother away as a lame excuse to take off with his mistress. Similarly, the rage of another boy, Karl (Karl Michael Balzer), comes from seeing his widower father in a post-coital moment with his employee, a young hairdresser whom he had a secret crush on. The backgrounds add considerable intensity when they do finally go to battle - hastily trained and stationed to defend the local bridge for later demolition (unbeknownst to them), in a maneuver that essentially makes them dead meat.
In adapting The Bridge from the novel, Wicki and fellow screenwriter Karl-Wilhelm Vivier rearranged the novel's flashback-filled structure to make a more linear, smoothly told story. As in the book, just one survivor emerges after the U.S. troops' tanks and cannon fire face off against the boys' puny, second-hand rifles and bullets. Although the desperate, haphazard carnage of the battle scenes aren't quite as compellingly done as the vignettes in the first half, one does get a sense of the tragic randomness of this horrible event.
Directed with Hollywood-style efficiency yet suffused with a fatalistic, distinctly German point of view, The Bridge left a lasting impression on the futility of war.
Note: images are from promotional sources and do not reflect the quality of the Blu Ray under review.
The Blu Ray:
Criterion's Blu Ray release of The Bridge comes in their standard clear plastic Blu-sized, DVD-width packaging. Stills from the film adorn the interior tray insert, along with the disc itself. Instead of a stapled booklet, this release has supplementary info printed in a six-panel fold-out.
The Bridge has been given a super, new 2K digital restoration for this release. Scanned from the original 35mm negative, the 1.37:1 black and white image is basically free of dust, scratches and other artifacts, while instances of jitter have been stabilized as well. If the photography itself sometimes appears too low-contrast (likely the way it was originally shown), it's made up for with the detail and texture brought out in the high-definition treatment. Night-time scenes look especially nice, atmospheric and not murky.
The uncompressed mono soundtrack has also been given a sprucing-up, resulting in a dynamically limited yet pleasant 24-bit remastering that manually removed instances of pops, clicks and hiss. The optional English subtitles are the default setting on this primarily German-language film.
Criterion has assembled a nice array of bonus material for this release, both new and archival:
As long as young people keep getting seduced into fighting the wars of others, there's a place for movies like The Bridge. Bernhard Wicki's assuredly directed 1959 film makes its pacifist point with an unexpected dose of melancholy (sort of like Paths of Glory told from a German youth p.o.v.). This fascinating, still hard-hitting drama is a welcome entry into the Criterion Collection. Highly Recommended.