Maria Schell (best actress, Cannes) is tremendously real—as earthy as she is luminous and poignant—as Helga Reinbeck, a German doctor serving as a nurse who is kidnapped by Partisans—Bosnian Serbs—in desperate need of medical attention during the Second World War in Die Letzte Brücke, one of the most trenchant humanistic antiwar films to come out of the war. In German, it is a co-production of Yugoslavia and Austria.
Amidst rocks and mountains, in sturdy black and white, director Helmut Käutner introduces “the last bridge” by which the Turks and subsequent aggressors invaded in the past. Caught in the crossfire between her own side and the side of her impressed though increasingly adoptive service, Helga falls down dead at the end, providing fifties cinema with one of its signature and most compelling images. This is the story of a self-certain German woman who, fighting to save Partisan lives, ends up not quite knowing where she belongs. This is her redemption—and in some small measure, perhaps, the war’s.
Käutner grippingly conveys the roughness of the Partisans’ efforts and disrupted lives, both of which suit the terrain; an outbreak of typhus further burdens Helga’s medical contribution. Inoculative serum is sparse; because of her importance to the Partisans, Helga herself gets the last available dose. On the other hand, a wounded German officer, whom the Partisans have captured, refuses her help, calling her a “traitorous swine.” In an unforgettable moment, a peasant woman, who is misled by Partisans into believing that Helga is voluntarily helping their cause, hands over to her the boots of her grandson, who has been killed by Germans. Die Letzte Brücke—her Hippocratic Oath is this as well—charts how Helga better and better comes to fill those boots.
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