Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) was a cinematic milestone in the evolution of the war genre for it introduced an extremely gritty, visceral combat aesthetic to revolutionary effect. Gone was the graceful theatricality of violent death, no longer did the infantryman simply clutch his breast aghast and quietly keel over in a wholly sanitary manner. Instead the viewer was hurled into a meat grinder of stark reality where young men died unceremoniously mid-sentence, where agonised screams rent the air after each skirmish and artillery shells tore flesh to ribbons. It seemed warfare had finally acquired a semblance of the real. Private Ryan's distinctive visual style in the vein of washed out 1940’s colour newsreel footage and peerless camera work, shakily following our protagonists through the rubble strewn streets of destroyed French hamlets, created an unparalleled sense of immersion and immediacy. For thrusting the audience headfirst into the very heart of conflict and smothering their senses in viscera, Spielberg's oeuvre is a qualified success.
One can trace the inspiration for this unique presentation of combat to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal satire “Dr. Strangelove” where an unpolished visual dynamism is evident during the air force base attack. The impression that one is peering over the very shoulders of the combatants as a heavy machine gun position is established and a distant troop convoy fired upon is testament to the inventiveness and engaging nature of the style whilst the advance of G.I’s past burning military detritus is shot as though by the trembling hands of a war correspondent. Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic "The Battle of Algiers" in all it's pseudo documentarian brilliance being another shining example.
Many would cite “Private Ryan” as being the ne plus ultra of realistic combat horror in cinema however the great Sam Peckinpah, universally regarded as being the pater familias of modern screen violence, brought his uncompromising vision of WW2’s savage eastern front to audiences in 1974 with the claret soaked ”Cross of Iron”. These films in their quest to reveal the true bloody awfulness of battle are but antecedents of German director Bernard Wicki’s little known 1959 masterpiece “Die Brücke” ("The Bridge"), a work that stands defiantly apart from the morass of jingoistic paeans to martial might that flooded the post war years.
It’s April 1945 in a small Bavarian village during the turbulent death throes of the third Reich. Eight teenagers socialised through years of Nazi propaganda into willful acceptance of death as an extension of patriotic duty are assigned the defence of a strategically useless bridge. Seeing the tragedy that befalls these naïve youngsters is a truly harrowing experience as their innocence is brutally stripped away before the viewer’s eyes. Being unwitting victims of hateful ideology and a damned regime the juxtaposition of burgeoning romances, classroom distraction and childhood games with the perverse insanity of total war is unsettling. The words of their disillusioned English teacher for whom the old adage “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was proven bitter fallacy amidst sludge and slaughter of the Somme fall upon deaf ears. Our idealistic young defenders cannot comprehend the imminence of defeat as they react with wholehearted jubilation to the receipt of their conscription notices.
When finally stationed at the bridge under the command of a benevolent superior officer (The kindly Sergeant Heilmann who intends to demolish it upon the arrival of the advancing Americans.) the boys witness the retreat of disheveled Wehrmacht veterans from the front. Still this does little do diminish their patriotic ardour. The inexorable descent towards death and destructions soon begins as the young troupe’s overseer, whilst searching for a demolitions crew without the necessary authorisation papers, is shot down by a pair of vindictive military police! This tragic sequence illustrates the utter madness of fascist bureaucratic pedantry during the final days, when Nazi roughnecks would kill anyone for the slightest infraction. Now without their kindly guardian our young protagonists must fend for themselves.
Characterisation is superb as we are introduced in the preceding scenes to the boys and their distinct backgrounds. Hans (Folker Bohnet) is lucky to be staying in the little Hamlet of Cham with the family of his best friend Albert (Fritz Wepper) whose father has fallen at the front. Theres Jurgen (Frank Glaubrecht), a paragon of the land-owning caste with strong traditionalist military connections longing to emulate papa and become an officer in the armed forces. Obsessed with the trappings of war he hopes for some glory in a rapidly evaporating world of grand offensives and Iron crosses.
The emotionally damaged Karl (Karl Michael Balzer) is infuriated by the marital infidelities of his father and fatalistically throws himself into danger so as to spite him. Walter (Michael Hinz) is the son of a cowardly party functionary of prominence in the community, the type who has faithfully regurgitated the government’s lies as to the inevitability of a miraculous final victory and the glory of sacrifice but who flees at the first instance of danger. Confronting this hypocrisy solidifies Walters resolve not to follow in his fathers footsteps and thoroughly disenchanted he joins his comrades about to embark on their great adventure, to fight for the Fuhrer.
Theres the innocent Klaus (Volker Lechtenbrink), oblivious as to the amorous intentions of beautiful Franziska (Cordula Trantow), their tender relationship in its infancy. In a touching scene Klaus talks of how he wishes her to keep a momento of him, a watch with luminous hands, only to sheepishly ask for it back on the eve of his departure. Poor Franziska expecting a profession of love as opposed to having the only souvenir of their relationship subordinated to the war effort. “If I go out on patrol at night its important to know what time it is…” says the hopelessly indoctrinated Klaus.
Sigi (Günther Hoffmann) affectionately known as the “little squirt” of the group is forever trying to prove his manliness against the playful derision of the others, his premature duck and cover manoeuvre upon sighting an enemy fighter providing quite a laugh. When the plane makes a second fly over and unleashes a hail of lead he refuses to move, manfulness futilely proven as weeping friends gather round his broken body.
Shattering foliage, taut close ups charting the psychological breakdown of the boys under intense fire, realistic infantry tactics, gaping bullet wounds through shredded uniforms, the horrific incineration of a civilians face from the back-blast of an anti-tank rocket, the evisceration of a G.I following a burst from a heavy machine gun, wounded soldiers writhing in anguish. Wicki's film was remarkably ahead of its time in that it pulled no punches. The Second World War on celluloid has for many years now satiated an atavistic desire for a reversion to a simpler time when there was a clearly identifiable black and white distinction between good and evil. Indeed it is perceived as being the last “good” war, a noble yardstick against which all others are measured.“The Bridge” (a film released in 1959) puts to shame the socially irresponsible sanitization of war in all its violent fury ala chest thumping patriotic pride fests such as “Pearl Harbor” and its ilk, instead being a healthy shade of grey.
Following in the great tradition of Lewis Milestone's “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”, the film is a raging polemic against militarism and its corruption of youth. Magnificently acted by its teenage cast and blessed with an unerring sense of realism” The Bridge” is quite possibly one of the greatest anti-war films ever made .