After quite a stretch of no film reviews, its time once again to look at a film: The Bridge at Remagen from 1969. It is quite an unconventional war film by both the standards of 2014, as well as from the time of its release. The film is a fictionalized (with reasonable accuracy) portrayal of the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge by the American Army in March of 1945. However, the film also shows the German side of the battle going so far as to basically give equal film time to the efforts of the US Army and the Wehrmacht.
Two early scenes sum this idea up. In the first, two German officers discuss strategy. The first one is more ideological and determined, while the other is more sentimental and worn out. This places the Wehrmacht in a more believable reality that is apart from its usual comic book villain portrayal. In the second, two US soldiers take a moments rest after an engagement. The first one shaves several days worth of stubble, trying to be clean and orderly despite all the chaos, while the other loots corpses of dead German soldiers. Like the previously mentioned scene, the characters’ differences prove to be a point of contention between them. However, the German officer realizes he must follow through with his duties no matter how difficult, while the American soldier isn’t convinced that he should stop looting.
These two early scenes provide a good set up of showing the two sides as well as the forgotten realities of the war.
The German war effort is aptly shown as early as the very first scene when a train carrying German military wounded just makes it over a bridge before it is demolished to prevent a US Army column from capturing it. There is a real sense of urgency and strategy that can be seen on part the Wehrmacht, which is usually shown in robotic and distant fashion. War related hardship and a methodical strategy in battle are almost always avoided in war films showing the Germans. In the main part of this film, we see how the Wehrmacht prepares to hold and demolish, with what little resources and firepower are available, the last remaining bridge on the Rhine, the river which blocks the core of Germany from the advance of the US Army.
First, let’s look at some minor details dispersed throughout the film. There is a brief discussion about the available human and weapon resources that the Wehrmacht has at Remagen. This includes a mention of “Polish and Russian volunteers,” which certainly a forgotten and/or overlooked reality. These soldiers were a small part of the overall sizeable Wehrmacht roster, however it is quite true that it wasn’t just Germans fighting for the cause of the Third Reich. Additionally, these foreigners were not coerced into enlisting and are thus correctly called “volunteers.” In another scene, the US Army thinks that they have secured a section of the town, when a sniper opens fire killing a soldier. The sniper is fairly quickly located and killed, though much to the US Army’s surprise, it was a teenage member of the Hitler Youth. Shown in an apparently tragic way, though there is the implication: how would have this young man fought if he were under the leadership of an officer or sergeant? It is seeing the boy’s body that the American looter is finally convinced that he should stop. There are also some dramatic scenes showing German civilians dealing with war losses and traumas, such as dead family members and lost homes. Towards the film’s end, one German officer mentions being the local schoolmaster.
These types of things almost never any type of acknowledgement in mainstream American film. Another key point is that at no point do the inhabitants of Remagen feel “liberated” by the US Army. In fact, they feel terrorized, which brings us to…
…terror bombing, the major and intentionally overlooked and downplayed aspect of the war. This film actually has the courage to show a small part of the relentless bombing campaign carried out the US, British and Soviet air forces during the war. Here, the US Army Air Corps bombs Remagen inflicting heavy damage and causing the residents to flee away from the city across the river. However, the bombers also target the bridge and, on top of that, it’s at a time when a mass of refugees is crossing it.
Just think: how often do you see the losses of Germans portrayed from a sympathetic point of view in war films? Germany was the most bombed county of the war, so this happened a lot more in Germany than in Britain, France or the USSR, though mainstream film would tell you otherwise. Also, towards the end of the film, American Army tanks destroy a train attempting to cross the bridge. The close up details are spared, however, a damning deed is nonetheless shown: a train full of wounded soldiers is destroyed without provocation.
In fact, it is the US Army that inflicts all the damage on the city of Remagen, just as it had on cities in France before it. In films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, this was almost totally overlooked and with viewers’ attention carefully guided away. In short, for the mainstream war film: if the Germans caused the damage, show it explicitly and exaggerate, but if the Americans caused the damage, at most imply it, but probably just ignore it.
A slightly more recent example of this last point is the film Red Tails from 2012. In the opening scene, a squadron of Luftwaffe fighters intercepts a massive flight of US bombers. The Germans fly skillfully in and out and around the flight picking off a few bombers. The scene heavily focuses on the sufferings of US crewmen, while menacingly portraying the German fighter planes. Only the Luftwaffe flight leader is shown in person, briefly as he ominously gives the order to attack, and he even has a stereotypical dueling scar across his face. What is not shown and is only implied is where that huge bomber flight was heading and the catastrophic damage that it would do. If one manages to imagine that, then the menacing Germans suddenly become devoted defenders of their country. Of course, this perspective is never shown in most movies.
The Bridge at Remagen is a rare exception, though still lacks the courage to show the SS in a truly accurate way. The Waffen SS is absent from the film, but there are black uniformed (a typical movie mistake) SS men who act as a ruthless political enforcement machine much like the Soviet Commissars. This conflation of SS and NKVD is yet another typical movie mistake. The SS was drastically different from any Soviet or Allied organization. Seeing that the filmmakers took the route of “fictionalized portrayal,” they could have inserted some Waffen SS men into the mix whether they were present at the actual battle or not. This would actually realistically account for the presence of the previously mentioned Poles and Russians, since practically all of the foreign volunteers in German military service were in the Waffen SS. This would also show the SS in a much more realistic way and would have been a fair use of creative license within a film.
However, since the film was shot in Communist Czechoslovakia and the expansive foreign production was likely to have been closely monitored, thus certain Marxist myths, such as that of the purely evil SS, had to be upheld. It may also be that for this reason SS presence in the film was kept to a minimum.
While it is noticeably misused in its portrayal of the SS, there is some apt use of creative license in the film. First, there are the splendid German uniforms that seem to be in ever perfect, or at the very least in surprisingly good condition considering the battle raging. Wehrmacht officers almost always wear their caps and fine tunics. Enlisted men, taking the bulk of combat duties get considerably more roughhoused, however even they wear the signature military boots that the German military had been famous for. Due to wartime material rationing and outright shortages, after 1941 jackboots stopped being issued, thus making it highly unlikely that an entire unit late in the war would be equipped with them. In fact, this small peculiarity actually seems to carry with it a glorification effect as a war ravaged Wehrmacht is shown still holding together its signature form.
Second, some of the poster art for the film also carries with it a degree of German glorification. In the poster above, in the background, we have German soldiers in near perfect uniforms and, in the foreground, two Americans with the one on the right looking rather goofy. This is the US Army soldier who goes about looting in the first half of the film and here he is holding an MP-40, an iconic German weapon from the war. In the poster below, the quote along the top positively underscores the Wehrmacht’s determined defensive campaign.
The Bridge at Remagen provides a sharp contrast from English language films about the Second World War from its own period of release and beyond. The Germans are not shown as bumbling idiots or comic book villains. However, this more sensible kind of war film lost out to the formulaic and sensational war blockbusters, such as The Dirty Dozen from 1967 in which a US commando team made up of death row convicts is sent to kill everyone at a gathering of German officers and civilians, and Where Eagles Dare from 1968, which is the quintessential movie of seemingly invincible Allied agents mowing down entire platoons of Axis soldiers. At the time of this film’s production in 1968 – 1969, Holocaust hysteria had yet to become thoroughly entrenched, thus WWII was still being depicted in at least a partly honest light as in this film.
However, the film does have its shortcomings and there is still a bit more that could have been done. Firstly, there were some posters for the film that get closer to vilifying the Germans or making them appear stupid (look here & here), however even these posters don’t get close to the Zionist propaganda image of a hellish Third Reich. Next, there is the fact that having German-speaking actors play the German parts would have added authenticity. Finally, the film also contains interesting tidbits that could have been discussed in more detail, such as people’s opinions on the war, not just mourning for losses, but rather a rounded discussion on the whole situation. This includes the attitudes of the foreign volunteers in German military service. Such dialog could have provided many genuine and interesting insights into what is going on.
The fact that those elements are missing is somewhat of a disappointment, however, with all the information currently available, such a film is essentially waiting to be made, the question is only when.
Hellstorm – documentary on the occupation of post-war Germany