Drama, War, Action | 103 Mins | Released: 1959
Director: Bernhard Wicki
Starring: Folker Bohnet, Fritz Wepper, Michael Hitz, Frank Glaubrecht, Karl Michael Balzer, Volker Lechtenbrink, Günther Hoffmann
Our Rating: 8
Black & White
In 1945, Germany is being overrun, and nobody is left to fight but teenagers. But despite the dangers of the war and feeling excitement about how close the fighting is getting to them, they live their lives as normally as they can, though they are overshadowed with personal problems: Karl, who has a crush on his hairstylist father’s young assistant, is shocked to see them in an intimate situation; Klaus is oblivious to the affections of his classmate Franziska; and Walter is deeply resentful of his father, the local Nazi Party Ortsgruppenleiter, who has chosen to save his own skin under the pretense of an important Volkssturm meeting. Jürgen is the son of a German officer who has been killed in action, and hopes to live up to his father’s reputation.
Unexpectedly, the boys are recruited into a local army unit, but after only one day in the barracks, the commanding officers receive news that the Americans are approaching, and the garrison is called out. As they prepare to move out, the Kompaniechef, who has been asked by the boys’ teacher to keep them out of action, arranges for the youths to be placed in ‘defense’ of the local bridge (which is strategically unimportant, and which is to be blown up anyway to spare the town the direct effects of the war), under the command of a veteran Unteroffizier.
Soon after the boys have settled in, the Unteroffizier leaves to get some coffee and inform the demolition squad, but on his way he is mistaken for a deserter by a Feldgendarmerie patrol and panics. He attempts to escape and is shot, leaving the boys alone on the bridge and with no contact with their unit. They remain guarding the bridge even after they are confronted by a convoy of trucks carrying wounded and maimed soldiers, and an officer bearing the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, desperate to escape the battlefront. Since the boys have not received orders to retreat, they decide to hold their position under the code: ‘A soldier who defends just one square meter of ground defends Germany’.
Dawn comes, and with it an American fighter plane which fires its machine guns at the bridge, killing the youngest of their number, Siggi, who refused to take cover because he had previously been teased for his alleged lack of bravery. Shocked by Siggi’s death, the boys take up their positions to defend the bridge against a trio of American M24 Chaffee tanks and their infantry support, but one by one the boys die, shaking their comrades with the true horrors of war. One of the most memorable scenes is when a GI who asks the boys to cease fire has his belly shot open by Karl (who is simultaneously killed by a machine gun burst himself) and the man dies screaming in agony, while Klaus begs Karl (being unaware that he is dead) to finish him off. Upon realizing that Karl is dead, Klaus goes mad and runs headlong into the American fire.
In the end, the last remaining tank retreats, followed by the surviving infantrymen. The boys have “done their duty for Führer and Fatherland” by preventing the Americans from crossing, but only Hans and Albert are left. A German demolition squad finally arrives and the Feldwebel in command immediately begins to criticize them, calling them nincompoops and would-be heroes. Realizing that his friends have died in vain, Hans goes mad with disbelief and despair, threatening the engineer with his rifle, and as the Feldwebel in turn readies his gun, he is shot from behind by Albert. The remaining engineers withdraw, leaving the boys in possession of the bridge, but with a final burst of submachine gun fire that kills Hans, leaving only a traumatized Albert to return home.
A line inserted just before the end credits soberly reads: ‘This event occurred on April 27, 1945. It was so unimportant that it was never mentioned in any war communique.’