The senselessness of war: the nobility of this theme did nothing to raise David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) above a level of hollowness and mediocrity. From West Germany, based on an actual incident recorded in Manfred Gregor’s autobiographical novel, Die Brücke achieves a finer, more powerful result. It, too, is a facile film, but small and reasonably honest, not something driven by fear of commercial extinction to generate meaningless “stupendous” effects because of the imagined competition of television. Bernhard Wicki’s film can mine and develop its identical theme more capably by focusing on this rather than splitting its time between enemy imprisonment and jungle adventure.
However, it also is blatant, schematic. The first half does three things: individuates the eight 15- and 16-year-old schoolboys who will be called up for military service as the Third Reich experiences its last gasps in spring 1945; enmeshes these lives in their small town’s increasingly desperate, demoralized state; visually marks the centrality of the bridge that the boys will end up defending by mistaken military order. In the second half, following one day of training, these boys, on their own after their commander is killed, defend to their deaths the bridge that their side plans on blowing up. Ironically, both the brutal Americans, by air and by tank, and the Germans themselves unwittingly conspire to doom these ridiculously gung-ho boys to their fate. One boy will survive to tell the tale, and the whole incident will be considered too trivial even to be written up by the German command.
One enormously effective brusque cut shows these boys moving from short pants to military uniforms. With the assistance of his cutter, Wicki “gets the job done.”
Beyond this, shots of fog passing over the bridge haunt.
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