Die Brücke (The Bridge) is a West German war film directed by Austrian filmmaker Bernhard Wicki. Based on an actual event fictionalized by Gregor Dorfmeister in a 1958 novel of the same title, the film tells the story of a small squad of German teenagers who assume the futile task of defending a bridge against the Allies in the closing days of World War II in Europe.
Toward the end of World War II Manfred Gregor Dorfmeister turned 16, so he was inducted into the Volkssturm (People’s Army) in his hometown of Bad Tölz, Bavaria, a resort hamlet about 30 miles south of Munich. On 1 May 1945—the day after Hitler’s suicide and a week before Germany’s surrender—Dorfmeister and four other 16-year-old draftees were ordered to defend a bridge in the forest 12 miles south of town. The next day American tanks spearheading an advance by the U.S. 141st Infantry Regiment (36th Infantry Division) approached the bridge. The Americans were fired upon by the Volkssturm boys. The lead tank was knocked out and a crewman badly, perhaps fatally, wounded. In the ensuing firefight, two of the five German boys were killed while Dorfmeister and the other two survivors of the skirmish fled back to Bad Tölz through the woods. When they arrived in town a few hours later, they were ordered by two Feldjägers (military policemen) to man a machine-gun nest and defend Tölzer Isar Bridge. After the Feldjägers left, Dorfmeister opted to go home, but his two comrades stayed to fight; they were killed before the town fell to the Americans. Thirteen years later, Dorfmeister, writing under the pseudonym of Manfred Gregor, expressed lingering feelings of guilt and grief by writing Die Brücke [The Bridge] (1958), a fictionalized account of the incident that became a bestseller in West Germany and was translated into 15 languages. Producers Hermann Schwerin and Jochen Schwerin secured the film rights and hired Austrian filmmaker Bernhard Wicki to direct a movie version. Wicki and cowriters Michael Mansfeld and Karl-Wilhelm Vivier wrote the adaptation.
Die Brücke was shot in black and white in the fall of 1958 at Florian-Geyer-Brücke [Florian Geyer Bridge] (demolished in 1991 and replaced in 1995) and at other locations in Cham, Bavaria, a town 150 miles northeast of Bad Tölz. None of the three M24 Chaffee light tanks shown in the movie are real. Because the newly formed Bundeswehr (postwar German Army) still did not have any tanks in 1959, Bernhard Wicki had to have wooden models constructed and then placed on top of truck chassis (the truck wheels can clearly been seen under the body of each “tank”).
In the final days of World War II, U.S. forces close in on a small Bavarian town. In the town’s school, seven boisterous 16-year-old boys are teasing girls, following the receding battle front on a wall map, and reading love passages from Romeo and Juliet in their English class. Walter Forst (Michael Hinz) is deeply resentful of his arrogant father (Hans Elwenspoek), the local Nazi Party Ortsgruppenleiter (local group leader), who has chosen to send his wife away to a safe location and save himself using the excuse of a Volkssturm meeting. Sigi Bernhard (Günther Hoffmann) refuses to let his mother send him out of town to avoid danger. Karl Horber (Karl Michael Balzer) is infatuated with Barbara (Edeltraut Elsner), his father’s young assistant at the hair salon, and is bewildered once he sees the two meeting romantically. Klaus Hager (Volker Lechtenbrink) does not notice that his classmate, Franziska (Cordula Trantow), has feelings for him. Jürgen Borchert (Frank Glaubrecht), whose father was a German soldier who died in battle, struggles to do justice to his father’s legacy. To their surprise, the young men are assigned to a local army platoon, and they are forced to deploy after only a single day in the barracks. As they prepare to depart, the boys’ teacher asks Fröhlich (Heinz Spitzner), the Kompaniechef (company commander)—a former teacher who has just lost his son in action—to keep them out of the war so they won’t be sacrificed pointlessly. The commander assigns the boys to the defense of a local bridge (slated for demolition anyway), under the command of Cpl. Heilmann (Günter Pfitzmann), a veteran Unteroffizier. The young men hunker down as Heilmann leaves to alert the demolition squad, but on his way, Heilmann is confused for a deserter by a German patrol and goes into a panic. Instead of communicating his purpose, he attempts to flee and is shot by the Feldegendarmerie patrolmen. The boys are thus left on their own, on the bridge, without a way to contact their unit. The boys decide to remain in position until receiving official orders to pull back. At dawn an American fighter plane drops a bomb near the bridge, killing Sigi, who had stubbornly refused to take cover as he had endured endless mockery for what his friends contended was cowardice. The death of their friend stuns the boys as they scramble to set up positions against three American tanks and accompanying troops. Walter uses Panzerfausts to obliterate two of the tanks, but soon overwhelmed, he is killed in action. Karl kills a G.I., but is immediately the victim of intense machine-gun fire. Klaus is unable to cope with Karl’s death and sprints forward into American gunfire. Finally, the last American tank and remaining soldiers do retreat, and Hans and Albert, the only boys still alive, realize that they have temporarily stalled the American advance. A German demolition squadron arrives on the scene, and one of the leading officers chastises the two remaining boys, sarcastically referring to them as “fools” and “fine heroes.” Hans goes mad once he sees that his friends have perished for nothing, and he threatens the German officer. Before the officer can shoot him, Albert fires at Hans instead. Hans dies in a last round of machine-gun fire, and Albert goes home, alone. A single sentence appears before the end credits: “This event occurred on April 27, 1945. It was so unimportant that it was never mentioned in any war communique.”
Released in West Germany on 22 October 1959, Die Brücke won five awards at the 1960 German Film Awards, including Outstanding Feature Film. At the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina in March 1960, Die Brücke beat out 25 other films to win Best Film in International Competition and also won the FIPRESCI Prize (tied with Alfonso Corona Blake’s Verano violento). At the 5th Valladolid International Film Festival in Seminci, Spain (April 1960), the film won the Silver Spike (i.e., second place behind François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows). It also received the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (but lost to Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus). Not surprisingly, reviews, both contemporary and more recent, continue to heap praise on Die Brücke as an exemplary anti-war film. In the words of Bosley Crowther, “Withal, Herr Wicki has constructed an intense and compelling film, notable for its cinematic sharpness and its concentrated emotional drive” (Crowther, 1961).
Reel History Versus Real History
Though based on a real incident as noted earlier, Die Brücke, both the film and the novel it closely follows, concentrates the action to one bridge, adds two more Volkssturm boys, makes them all classmates and friends, provides backstories to particularize them, and greatly embellishes and complicates the action. All of these fictional elements were added on to the original and rather banal incident in order to attain maximum irony and pathos and to underscore the senseless futility of the boys’ deaths in a war that was long lost and almost over. Decades since its original release, the ersatz tanks and ramping up of melodrama may strike more sophisticated audiences as somewhat jejune, but Die Brücke still works because its anti-war message remains imminently valid. A made-for-German-TV remake of Die Brücke, directed by Wolfgang Panzer, appeared in 2008 but is widely regarded as inferior to the original version.