The Last Bridge (Helmut Kautner, 1954)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Last Bridge.

criterion logoHelmut Käutner’s stark, realist World War II drama The Last Bridge is an exceptional anti-war statement and a significant treatise on our shared humanity.  Maria Schell portrays Helga, a German doctor working as a nurse in a line hospital in Yugoslavia who is captured by partisan guerrillas and forced to care for their wounded and protect them from a typhus outbreak.  Torn between her national loyalties and her Hippocratic Oath, Helga struggles in the face of the suffering around her, leading to one of cinema’s most profound and tragic conclusions.  Widely acclaimed at its release, winning the International Jury Prize, a Special Prize for Schell’s performance, and the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual’s prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival, The Last Bridge is a poignant articulation of war’s folly and compassion’s value.

Disc Features:

  • New digital master, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by German film scholar Eric Rentschler
  • Maria Schell: Smiling Through Tears, a new 45-minute video on actress Maria Schell
  • Schell’s 1959 appearance on What’s My Line?
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • Plus:  A booklet featuring new essays by film scholars Christoph Huber and Philip Kemp

While Helmut Käutner’s films of the 1940s are increasingly reconsidered as humane and compassionate masterpieces of their era, they struggled to be seen during their time, often running aground of Nazi standards that considered the films as lacking the heroism and Germanness required of cultural works.  Käutner continued making quality films through the ’40s and ’50s, following the Third Reich’s fall, achieving his greatest acclaim for the Yugoslavian/Austrian co-production The Last Bridge, a realist war drama centring around the moral dilemma of a German doctor captured by opposing Yugoslavian guerrillas and forced to care for their sick and wounded.  Maria Schell plays Helga, the German doctor working as a nurse in a line hospital of the occupying Nazi forces.  Helga has little interest in the war beyond a sergeant with whom she’s fallen in love.  When she is captured by the Bosnian Serbs and is forced to tend to their casualties, Helga initially opposes assisting the partisan forces and unsuccessfully tries to escape them.  Gradually Helga’s conscience prevents her from abiding the suffering around her and she cares for the partisans, dressing their wounds and inoculating them against a spreading typhus outbreak.  When faced by German soldiers quick to label her a traitor, the young doctor arranges their escape but refuses to go herself.  The Last Bridge concludes with one of 1950s cinema’s most indelible images – Helga, attempting to steal a cache of medical supplies and refusing to rejoin her beloved sergeant when she is fortuitously reunited with him, is gunned down by crossfire while crossing a bridge that divides German and partisan forces.

Maria Schell’s performance won an acting prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival and it’s easy to understand why as her sensitive and forlorn portrayal of Helga is central to The Last Bridge.  With her sweet face, watery eyes, and shy grin, Schell seems in an ever-present state of melting with sympathy.  Even at her sternest, the Austrian/Swiss actress is just a gifted pair of boots or a tale of lost love away from being overcome.  Schell’s fragile sensitivity is unsuited to the hardscrabble conditions she and her beleaguered captors endure, making her perseverance all the more touching, particularly during her final and tragic effort to abscond with medical supplies from the German side while disguised as an enrobed Muslim peasant.  The film opens with Helga and her sergeant on a bridge – a lovers’ oasis between two sides at war.  At the film’s conclusion, Helga crosses back and forth across another bridge, stealing from her countrymen in an effort to relieve the suffering of her adversaries.  The bridge becomes a link between sides, and Helga’s brave humanity allows her to pass across these two fronts rather than hide between them.  Her death expresses the demise of mutual understanding and the sad cost of entrenched nationalism.

The Last Bridge was Helmut Käutner’s most widely embraced, critically hailed work.  The film launched a brief and unsuccessful Hollywood career at Universal that resulted in The Restless Years (1958) and A Stranger in My Arms (1959) and then a return to Germany when only offered a western for his next project.  To make matters worse, the New German Cinema movement’s 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto specifically criticized Käutner’s theatrical work of the early 1960s.  The winds of change were not kind to Käutner, who completed his career in television (making more than 20 television features that remain essentially unknown) and whose remaining films in the 1960s and ’70s failed to spark any cinematic comeback or renewed interest in his previous filmography.  Käutner is now undergoing a reappraisal and English language critics and audiences are now discovering this poetic filmmaker and his love for average people and daily life.  The Criterion Collection does require some broadening within its German films and Käutner’s stories and themes are ideally suited to enhance and diversify the label’s library of important classic cinema.  It would also serve to further enhance the rising profile of a master filmmaker ignored for far too long.

Phil Noto Mad MenWhen it comes to selecting an artist for a Criterion cover treatment, there is a potential affinity between Phil Noto and The Last Bridge.  While Noto rarely involves himself with subject matter set earlier than the 1960s, his thin lines and his rough, yet precise style feel texturally consistent with the arid, sun-bleached terrain of Käutner’s film.  Noto also has a real knack for portraiture, particularly regarding women, and so I’d love to see his vision of Maria Schell.

Credits:  The previous post on Helmut Käutner’s Great Freedom No. 7 described the significances of Eric Rentschler, Christoph Huber, and Philip Kemp.  A full compliment of special features requires some biographical content on Maria Schell.  Unable to find any satisfying documentary work to include, we’ve simply imagined a documentary feature.  Schell’s appearance on What’s My Line? is a lot of fun and seeing Schell in good spirits as the show’s mystery guest is a nice counterpoint to the heavy melodrama of The Last Bridge.

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3 thoughts on “The Last Bridge (Helmut Kautner, 1954)

  1. Richard Ross February 1, 2014 / 8:32 pm

    How do I buy: The Last Bridge

    • spinenumbered February 3, 2014 / 3:41 pm

      I believe there is a German edition DVD. Otherwise, I think you’re stuck.

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