Under the Bridges (Helmut Kautner, 1946)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Under the Bridges.

criterion logoPuttering up and down the Havel River, bargemen Hendrik and Willi (Carl Raddatz and Gustav Knuth) dream of meeting a decent woman, getting married, and living a “solid life.” While traveling to Berlin, they meet forlorn Anna (Hannelore Schroth) on Potsdam’s Glienicker Bridge and mistake her for a potential suicide. The pair provide her with refuge on their barge as it heads for Berlin and each takes a fancy to the young woman, but she is too guarded to reciprocate and their friendship strains under the tension of their humble romantic rivalry. Stylishly representing working class lives in a poetic realist style, Helmut Käutner’s Under the Bridges is a heart-winning drama that imagined German life and love free from the traumas of World War II and stands as an underappreciated masterpiece of German cinema.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary by German film scholar Robert Reimer
  • Who Is Helmut Käutner?, Marcel Neudeck’s 2008 portrait of the director
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A new essay by film scholar Philip Kemp

Considered to arguably be Helmut Käutner’s best work, Under the Bridges portrays the domestic longing of a pair of German bargemen and their humane rivalry over a young woman they take under their wing. Hendrik and Willi (Carl Raddatz and Gustav Knuth) operate a canal barge that travels up and down the Havel River on a tug-line between the North Sea coast and Berlin. Each long to meet a decent woman and settle down, but are never off the boat long enough to find more than Hendrik’s stop-over liaisons, the cafe waitress unable to choose between them (or even tell them apart), and the affectionate goose that shares their boat. (Notably, both the waitress and the goose are named Vera, though only the goose seems to give out kisses.) One late night, while moored near the Glienicker Bridge near Potsdam, the two men spy a distressed young woman staring down into the water. When she drops a ten-mark note into the river, Hendrik and Willi suppose her to be a potential suicide and convince her to join them on the barge with the promise of safe passage to her home in Berlin. Their new passenger, Anna (Hannelore Schroth), is a shy rural girl from Silesia who has moved to Berlin and now makes her living flipping potato pancakes in a restaurant. Willi and Hendrik each take a fancy to her, though the revelation that she earned her ten marks modelling for an artist complicates their intentions to a point. The two men agree that their friendly romantic conflict will end with one getting Anna and the other getting the barge. A deep connection is felt between Hendrik and Anna, though Hendrik’s temperament gets the better of him and he leaves amiable Willi behind to woo Anna and work a crane while he departs Berlin on the tow-line. Still, true love cannot be denied and Under the Bridges concludes with Hendrik, Willi, and Anna finding their rightful places in love and work.

Willi Left OutUnder the Bridges (Unter den Brücken) is most regularly hailed for its stylish observation of the everyday, beautifully recalling the poetic realist style of 1930s French cinema with its working class contexts and its moody, sometimes noir-ish, cinematography. Käutner casually revels in the details of proletarian living – accordion-playing, pancake-flipping, cleaning tar from fingernails, hand-painted decoration, a day off in the park – however his precise attention to social conditions deftly compliments his low-key flourishes of Dutch angles, stark chiaroscuro, and romantically glamourous, soft-focus close-ups. The film’s inventiveness is declared in its opening title sequence depicting the riverboat view up under various bridges. Light reflects upwards off the water and undulates against their dark undersides while film credits appear only to be wiped away as the bridges passes out the top of the frame. In arguably its most romantic sequence, Under the Bridges orchestrates a bravura sequence in understated lyricism. Late at night, Hendrik explains that the sounds that keep Anna awake on the boat as a kind of music made from reeds and ropes and water lapping against the sides of the barge’s hull. He reproduces the sounds for her with his mouth and when she turns in, he plays his accordion in the soft light of the moon while the camera of cinematographer Igor Oberberg gently follows the natural sounds that accompany him.

Aboard with VeraAs noted by Robert C. Reimer, Under the Bridges makes a star of its music, particularly two songs. “Auf der Brücke Tuledu” (“On the Tuledu Bridge”) is a song of bridges and love affairs whose melody is emblematic of the friendship between Hendrik and Willi. Its fast lively stanzas contrast with its slow, melancholy refrains that long for some permanent, romantic attachment, describing the two men’s conflicting desires. “Muschemusch, es Sprach die Sonne” serves as a leitmotif for Hendrik and Anna’s growing love. It describes watching ships sailing for Zanzibar, evoking the desire to be carried away by love, and its nonsense word “muschemusch” stands-in for the sound of the waves. The musicality and highly choreographed movements in Under the Bridges is very much a holdover of Käutner’s days as a cabaret performer where spontaneity was usually a carefully effected construct. The director originally started out as a theatre actor and then part of a vaudeville group called “Die Vier Nachrichter,” a play on words which sounds like “The Four Reporters” but actually means “The Four Henchmen.” Käutner regularly affirmed his apolitical nature, but it was not unearned. The group lasted from 1930 to 1935 until it was banned for one of its members being Jewish and another having a Jewish wife. He once remarked, “Politics in every form I have encountered …. has always inspired in me no other feeling than boredom, annoyance or nausea.”

AnnaEven more than Käutner’s previous film, Great Freedom No. 7, Under the Bridges reflects the director’s practice of filmmaking in “internal exile.” While some directors fled Nazi Germany and others stayed and collaborated to create popular propaganda, Käutner made films that existed in a contemporary Germany scrubbed of nearly all references to the Third Reich. Under the Bridges represents an idyllic view of Berlin despite the movie having been shot in the summer of 1944 amid Allied bombing campaigns. The film portrays a world where the mundane problems of daily life could be recalled and sweetly charged romantic troubles could bring comfort to audiences seeing the war and its atrocities approaching home. In an often quoted remark, Käutner was explicit in his intentions to create something that spoke to the inner longings of Germans, stating:

This film was a peaceful documentation of our own wishes. We lived as though in a dream disconnected from time and by working [on the film] directed our attention away from all the terrible things.

Under the Bridges was not released until after the German defeat. It premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival in September 1946 and was eventually released in Germany in 1950. Given how Great Freedom No. 7 was held back from release due to allegations of moral defeatism and individual resignation and due to required edits not being completed in time, it is easy to presume that Under the Bridges fell aground of similar criticisms, however the Nazis’ chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels had established a policy of avoiding overt ideological reminders in German cinema by 1942 and the film industry had already pivoted to distracting entertainment like operettas and light comedies by the time Under the Bridges was made. The film’s delayed release was most likely a function of falling behind a queue of other films Nazi authorities had already scheduled into cinemas first and not a reflection on its sentiment.

Two BargemenThe lack of political reasons for Under the Bridges seeing its delayed release does raise questions about the politics of Käutner’s nonpolitical movie. For some, Käutner’s film plays into the hands of the escapism desired by the Third Reich that hoped to assuage anxieties over the turning tide of the war. This approach to Under the Bridges as an inadvertently enabling tool of the Nazi regime is superficially sensible but struggles under greater scrutiny. Käutner’s intentions to create an idyllic and humane space untouched by the ugliness of the Third Reich and the punishing realities of the war is described by Eric Rentschler as an “aesthetic resistance” to the Third Reich’s demands for Siegfried-esque heroism. Sombrely romantic, featuring disaffected people searching out new communities in liminal and unconventional arrangements, the film aspires to more humanistic and liberal sensibilities than those of their time. While its romantic lyricism points to an alternate Berlin, a dream-city Germans might long to temporarily visit, Under the Bridges is grounded by its recognizable characters and locales and any escapism it promotes is done on a principled basis.

Unter den Brucken PosterIt’s wonderful revisiting the work of Helmut Käutner. MMC! favourite Great Freedom No. 7 has been released on Blu-ray by Kino since we proposed it for entry into the Criterion Collection back in 2013, and MMC! happily included Käutner’s Black Gravel (another Kino release) amongst our favourite discoveries of 2021. For some, Käutner is considered to be Germany’s greatest filmmaker after Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his Under the Bridges is considered his finest work, so what better choice for Criterion canonization? MMC! would love to see this film find a hard media release by the label with an English-language version of this poster utilized for a cover design. This lovely and modest romance film would make a great February release and would pair nice with Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) and François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962)!

Credits: MMC! presumes that a restoration of Under the Bridges is available given the film’s inclusion in various Käutner retrospectives over the last decade or so. Marcel Neudeck’s 2008 film does exist and so it was chosen for inclusion on this imagined release. Robert Reimer was chosen to provide an audio commentary given his essay “Turning Inward: An Analysis of Helmut Käutner’s Auf Wiedersehen, FranziskaRomanze in MollUnder den Brücken” which appears in his book Cultural History through a National Socialist Lens: Essays on the Cinema of the Third Reich. Philip Kemp was chosen to provide a booklet essay for his article on Käutner for Sight & Sound.

This post also owes thanks to Jochen Kürten’s article “How Cinema Under the Nazis Distracted Germans From the War – and Survived Until the End” and Christoph Huber’s “Who is Helmut Käutner?”

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