Director Bernhard Wicki indirectly structures The Bridge to match the unwitting psychology of its seven 16-year-old protagonists by introducing them without ample supplement or exposition, as they saunter about their hometown of Bad Tölz, Germany in 1945, right as World War II is nearing a conclusion. The boys are excited by the prospect of war, though not necessarily its end; a dropped bomb opens the film, which for its first half follows various residents as they elect to either hold tight or catch the next train out of town. The Americans are closing in, but Wicki makes no immediate, cinematic assessment of this prospect. Instead of retaining the flashback structure of Manfred Gregor’s novel, on which the film is based, Wicki incorporates backstory and motivation as the film progresses, leading headlong into a bullet-ridden, final 30 minutes in which the boys’ dream of engaging in combat becomes shockingly, bloodily real.
Each of the seven protagonists gradually comes into view before they’re uniformed for battle, as relatively harmless flirtations with local girls are mixed with more difficult, familial relations, either related to war-torn disputes or sexual jealousy. Sigi (Günther Hoffmann) lives with his mother who’s bartered everything she has to keep her son clothed and fed. Meanwhile, Karl (Karl Michael Balzer) has a crush on the local hairdresser, but becomes enraged when he witnesses her disrobing in his father’s bedroom. Despondent, Karl looks at a group of girls during gym class and exclaims: “They’re all sluts!” That draws the ire of Klaus (Volker Lechtenbrink), who punches Karl for including his girlfriend in the slander. Wicki takes his time introducing the rest of the characters, all of whom struggle with rather meager stakes. In fact, the film at first seems rather minor for its seemingly meandering investment in adolescent psychology.
The film’s inaugural events recall Young Törless, made several years later, for their emphasis on schoolyard antics and youthful fisticuffs which, while potentially harmful to egos and psyches, register as a featherweight blow next to the knowing deployment of idealistic youth for national pride and benefit that occurs upon impending assault. If The Bridge has one fault, it’s having its young protagonists left to defend the titular passage by accident rather than explicit order, making their subsequent horrors a product of negligence and miscommunication instead of outright ruthlessness.
Wicki plots the film as a virulent anti-war statement, but there’s nothing superficial or polemical about his aims; he allows the events to unfold with an internal logic that, while tragic and coincidental in the case of why the boys are left alone to guard a bridge, attempts to depict a firefight with the rousing excitement often found in more patriotic war films, only altered by the knowledge that, indeed, these are just boys staring down the barrel of a gun. If The Bridge possesses a foundational premise, it’s daring one to find its proficient, impeccably staged battle sequence exciting rather than terrifying. Wicki uses violence in order to condemn it, which could play as exploitation were the human elements not so perfunctorily navigated. Although each of the seven boys looks, sounds, and behaves relatively alike in the film’s first half, it’s revealed as a dramatic ploy once they’re all uniformed and fitted with rifles, since now, as a band of brothers meant for cannon fodder, their bodies are truly interchangeable. It’s a point Wicki makes striking clear in an overhead shot that sees not faces, but uniform helmets, aligned as tightly as a factory made pack of cigarettes—standard issue, of course.
Given that The Bridge has never been released on Region 1 DVD, the Criterion Collection’s new, 2K digital restoration is a revelation, particularly because it reveals director Bernhard Wicki as a formative filmmaker who, based on this one film, helped generate New German Cinema. Image depth and clarity are fantastic, especially with Wicki’s framing, which necessitates deep focus in order to keep bits of visual information in view. Likewise, color balancing is excellent, if a bit over-exposed in a few later scenes, with the boys’ faces brightly lit on the bridge, though this may have been Wicki’s intent. The only issue of note is several frames that have scratches and appear less restored and detailed, which is likely a facet of Criterion electing to retain some image flaws in lieu of full-on digital compositing. The monaural soundtrack is impeccable, made clear from the opening whistle of a bomb being dropped. Explosions and dialogue are all forceful and clear and any quality or level issues have been fixed.
A nice assortment of supplements includes a new interview with Gregor Dorfmeister, who recalls his experiences during the war, on which his novel was based. Moreover, Dorfmeister talks about consulting with Wicki on how to adapt the story, which they both decided would be best told chronologically, without the novel’s flashback structure. Director Volker Schlöndorff offers a brief interview that explains his infatuation with the film and how it served as a formative influence on Young Törless. A 1989 interview with Wicki features reminiscences about shooting the film, but also candid testimony about the several months that he spent in a concentration camp. Also included is a brief excerpt from a 2007 documentary with behind-the-scenes footage of the production, which is notable mostly for its historical insights. Finally, an essay by Terrence Raferty examines what makes the film unique, calling Wicki a "clear-eyed poet of defeat."
Thanks to Criterion’s new Blu-ray, Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge can further assume its rightful rank among the progenitors of New German Cinema.