'Die letzte Brucke' is the second movie that I have been fortunate enough to view from the canon of German maestro Helmut Kautner. 'Des Teufels General' is a hugely admirable and evocative piece of work featuring a commanding central performance from Curd Jurgens but, in my opinion, 'Die letzte Brucke' stands above even that. It displays a special mark of inspired brilliance that confirms to me Kautner's position as one of the pre-eminent directors in the history of German cinema.
Maria Schell, in one of her breakthrough leading roles, is quite unforgettable as Helga. Adding an effective touch, her shifting emotions throughout the movie are conveyed by close-ups of Schell's face. Helga is a doctor but volunteers as a nurse in war-torn 1943 Yugoslavia because of shortages. She is carefree and being romantically pursued by a young German soldier named Martin. She certainly appears a little naive about the nature of the Nazi war machine. Her untroubled existence is suddenly shattered apart when she is kidnapped by Partisans and forced to provide the rag-tag bunch with medical care.
'Die letzte Brucke' is, in essence, a fish out of water tale and a movie about one woman's journey of self-discovery amidst the horrors and inevitable tangled loyalties of wartime. Helga, indeed, gradually finds herself softening in her opinion of her captors who fight as guerrillas to defend their ancestral homeland. Helga gains an ever-deeper understanding of the people, the land and their history and in this cultural aspect the movie is evocative and admirably observational. The influence of Italian neo-realism is evident throughout. The movie was filmed in and around Mostar with a Yugoslav supporting cast and there is a sparing but hauntingly effective use of traditional folk songs that certainly add to the local flavour. As the Partisan leader, Boro, extends his palm out over the landscape, we appreciate in some way the deep affinity these people have with their land and why the will to resist Fascism burns so brightly in their hearts.
Kautner makes full use of the landscape and succeeds in creating a palpable undercurrent of lurking, hidden danger. The challenging terrain, the mountains, the river, and the last bridge of the title are utilised simply but compellingly to create an atmosphere fraught with fear, uncertainty and menace.
'Die letzte Brucke' stands as a stirring and moving triumph and a fitting tribute to the irrepressible beauty of humanity. It is a timeless ode to a woman's selflessness and inherent integrity in the face of great personal and exterior conflict. 'Die letzte Brucke' was in a way Kautner's comeback movie after a string of financial flops ('Der Apfel ist ab', 'Konigskinder', 'Weisse Schatten', 'Kapt'n Bay-Bay') and it is a fitting movie with which to return to success. Maria Schell received special mention at Cannes for her extraordinary performance and Helmut Kautner was recognised with the German Film Award for best direction. 'Die letzte Brucke' is a movie I shall treasure in my collection. It is one of the great war movies and is in that august company thanks to skillful directorial utilisation of the surroundings and the haunting compassion of Maria Schell's Helga.
* As a footnote it is interesting to consider that Bernhard Wicki, who does a good job portraying the gruff Partisan leader Boro, would go on to direct the acclaimed 1959 anti-war movie 'Die Brucke'.
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