One of the biggest challenges anti-war movies face is finding a way to prevent war from looking glamorous. It's a surprisingly difficult task – it's hard to strip the surface-level excitement from scenes of men shooting at each other, no matter how noble your intentions may be. The 1959 German film The Bridge actually succeeds in its efforts to make war painful, partially because it's a film made by the people who lost the war being depicted. We know that the film's main characters will probably die, a factor that replaces the usual excitement and tension with increasingly overwhelming sensations of sadness and dread. Yes, the doomed soldiers are Nazis, but they are also impressionable teenagers being shoved into a war they can't even begin to understand. This is such a heartbreaking movie.
The film's first forty-five minutes offer a mundane portrait of seven 16-year-old German boys enjoying ordinary life during the later days of WWII. They goof off in school, they tease each other, they argue with their parents, they fall in love with girls, they get into fights – they do the things teenage boys do. It's all well-captured, I suppose, but it's also a little boring. The boys themselves aren't particularly distinctive characters, and the situations they find themselves in are both unremarkable and unremarkably staged. Still, the banality is purposeful: the naturalistic opening scenes exist to give the film's sudden transformation into a strikingly cinematic war movie (which happens in the span of a single ingenious cut) a startling sense of immediacy.
The boys enter basic training with a sense of gung-ho patriotism. In class, they have eagerly swallowed the propaganda dished out by their teacher: the war is noble, the cause is freedom, victory is inevitable, no one dies in vain. They're intoxicated by the idea of dying for the country, but that's because it's only an idea – once they're faced with the reality of things, their attitude changes dramatically.
Feeling a sense of responsibility and regret, the teacher approaches a commanding officer and asks that the boys not be placed on the front lines (where they'll surely be killed almost instantly). The teacher confesses that he's losing his stomach for peddling propaganda, and that he knows Germany's defeat is just around the corner. He simply wants to avoid needless bloodshed. The officer reluctantly agrees to hand the boys a relatively safe assignment: guarding a small bridge scheduled for demolition the next day. It's expected that the teenage soldiers will simply have to keep each other awake all night, help blow up the bridge once the demolition experts arrive and return to the base safe and sound. Alas, things won't go that smoothly.
Once a handful of American tanks show up, we know that the young Germans are doomed. It takes them a little longer to realize it. The film's final act contains some of the most painful images I've ever seen in a war film – the dirty, tear-streaked faces of frightened boys begging for their lives as they're taken out one by one. The tragedy is further compounded by the fact that inexperience plays a large role in the deaths that occur – they make one simple mistake after another, and the American forces capitalize on each and every one. There are fleeting moments of false bravado as the boys attempt to convince each other that they're invincible heroes, but the sight of dead friends quickly rips those illusions to shreds. Amidst the chaos, a gruffly empathetic American soldier delivers the film's saddest, most resonant line: “What are you doing in this friggin' war, you dumb kid?”
The Bridge never bothers to examine the larger issues at stake in the war, because we're all well aware of what was at stake and the wrong that was being done (German audiences circa 1959 were certainly aware of these things). The film is angry at German society for teaching these young men the things it taught them, angry at the German military for sacrificing the lives of these young men so casually and angry at how little anyone seemed to care about it. As the film closes, we're told that everything we have seen is true, and that it was of so little consequence that no one ever made an official report on the matter.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 1959