Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. The Bridge d. Bernhard Wicki Spine: #763 Blu-ray Release Date: June 23, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image. Because my own Blu-ray drive broke this past week, Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver has kindly granted me permission to use stills he posted on his website DVD Beaver (here) until I get my drive fixed.
When Bernhard Wicki’s adaptation of Gregor Dorfmeister’s The Bridge was released in 1959, German cinema was going through a fallow period, at least on the international stage. Despite such a strong tradition that includes many of the masterpieces of the silent and early sound era, events of the 1930s and 1940s pushed out many of their greatest filmmakers, and state policies did little to encourage new growth. Over at his blog Criterion Reflections, where he reviews films from The Criterion Collection in chronological order, David Blakeslee recently reviewed Volker Schlöndorff’s 1966 film Young Törless and noted that the most recent German film he’d reviewed — at that time the most recent German film in The Criterion Collection — was 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. True, The Criterion Collection is not charged with and does not release every noteworthy film, but it is a telling detail. German cinema was relatively dormant for many years. One of the great films made during this time, though, is now available from The Criterion Collection and breaks that 33-year gap between The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Young Törless: The Bridge.
Fittingly, The Bridge addresses the cataclysmic world shattering events and mentalities that played a role in Germany’s cinematic decline. Based on Dorfmeister’s own experiences, the film is set in a quiet, German village during the final days of World War II. Formerly quiet is a better word, though, because the front is getting close, so close that aggressive enemy fly-overs are now a part of everyday life. As the film begins, most of the characters are reacting to a disappointing crater out by the bridge where a bomb was dropped.
A group of seven school boys — “average age is sixteen” — have spent most of their conscious years knowing no other reality than war. They have no idea the war is almost over, and they look forward to the day they get their draft papers. They must have seen dozens of their friends leave over the years, and the tragedy has not yet quite taken prominence over excitement and heroism.
Yet within that perverse reality, these boys nevertheless have had a very human adolescence. Wicki spends the first forty or so minutes dwelling on things that might seem mundane and misplaced in the context of a war film, things like pranks, young love and lust, or hidden booze. Despite the world around them, these are recognizably — and recognizable — children.
Naturally, this is all a lead up to another tragedy that first shows its head when the boys receive their draft notices.
Of course, we’ve seen other films with a similar premise, and we know that war is hell, tragic. Yet The Bridge remains fresh and even, if I may, particularly tragic. Right after the boys are drafted, the front moves even closer. It’s time for battle. Because they actually managed to have some caring authority figures, though, the boys are relegated the task of defending the bridge in their home town. No one thought the bridge was strategically important. No one actually thought the boys could do anything about the advancing American army. Rather, they hoped it would keep the boys out of trouble. If the Americans got to the bridge, the German army was just going to blow it up. But, due to some extra tragedy, the boys didn’t know this and are left ignorantly fighting for meaningless ground.
The acting is astonishing. These are young boys playing the parts, young boys who had little experience actually living during the war, and yet their performances are uniformly mature and nuanced. At once, they play the childish, the patriotic, and the terrified school boy. They remind us at every corner that they’re real and that they’re worth saving. The bridge is just meaningless concrete.
When Criterion announced that they’d be releasing this title, most people were pleasantly surprised. I myself had never heard of it. At this point, though, it’s one of their best releases of the year.
- Gregor Dorfmeister. As mentioned above, the film is based on Gregor Dorfmeister’s debut novel of the same name, which was published in September 1958 when Dorfmeister was only 29 years old. The novel is semi-autobiographical. In a special treat, The Criterion Collection visited and interviewed the now 86-year-old Dorfmeister at his home in Bavaria this past March for this supplement. The interview runs for 23 minutes, and it is very moving as Dorfmeister talks about the events that inspired his book.
- Bernhard Wicki. This 15-minute supplement is an excerpt from an interview with Wicki conducted for a 1989 episode of the German television show Das Sonntagsgesprach (Sunday Talk). Wicki himself is a concentration camp survivor (yet, astonishingly, he makes us feel genuine sympathy for those who fought to keep him there). He talks about the film and what it has meant to the cause of peace.
- Volker Schlöndorff. This is a 10-minute interview conducted wit the director in February of this year. Schlöndorff was involved in what has become known as New German Cinema, an ideal set up in the early 1960s to quash what those involved considered to be the old, staid German cinema. He expresses his admiration for Wicki and talks about Wicki’s influence on him and the cinematic movement.
- Against the Grain: The Film Legend of Bernhard Wicki. This is a 10-minute excerpt from a 2007 documentary produced by Wicki’s widow, Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss, to honor her husband.
- The set also includes an accordion-style insert with Terrence Rafferty’s essay “Cannon Fodder,” in which Rafferty . . .