Made as an escapist comedy during the death throes of Nazi Germany, Under the Bridges feels like a throwback to a more innocent cinema that never knew the war, reveling in the French romanticism that thrived in the preceding decade: L'Atalante (TSPDT #16); A Day in the Country (TSPDT #153); as well as Boris Barnet's practically-French By the Bluest of Seas (TSPDT #875). Two boatmen are tired of a shared love life that amounts to shore leave flings and glances at girls who watch like angels from bridges as their vessel passes beneath their skirts. Masterful camera movements sweep the top deck of a barge, scanning the activity on and around it, or swirl around the racetrack layout of a restaurant in which a flirtatious waitress makes her rounds, sizing up proposals from rivaling suitors. There's a constant bustle of comings, goings, small heartbreaks and sighs, but like the river barge upon which it is mostly set, the film chugs along with a cheerful stoicism, neither oblivious to life's endless disappointments nor prone to succumbing to them. It's a pragmatic strain of romanticism that belongs uniquely to this film.
When the boatmen pick up a troubled girl with a mysterious past and take turns pitching woo to her, the outcome of this romantic rivalry is less important than how this triangle strains the film's no-nonsense take on the usefulness of love. A tension emerges between the boatmen's tacit vow to treat work and mating as affairs of pertinence, and a temptation to succumb to swooning romantic impulse, expressed in moments and images of exquisitely subtle beauty: a man and a woman washing each other's hands or laughing while flipping potato pancakes; the riverside sensuality of listening to frogs ribbitting rhythmically under velvet sheets of night; the emotional upheaval contained in a falling lock of hair. Charged by this clash between practicality and impulse, the film doesn't move so much as oscillate: its camera swings around a room from corner to corner, face to face, caught between conflicting protocols of courtship. One moment you're using your pet goose to flirt with the girl you've picked up, the next moment you're serving that same goose to the same girl for dinner, and she's mortified. One moment you're charging her 10 marks to ride your barge; the next you're both calculating how much of a refund to give and receive because things didn't work out.
Eventually this tension gives way to the gentlest of fights that expresses little more than a desire shared by all three characters: to nurture and be nurtured as friends and lovers. It's a strangely wise film whose camera traces the daunting eddies of amorous desire, steadied by an undercurrent of calm acceptance at everything that life presents: heartbreak, hardships, even, perhaps, the war raging around the film's production. It's all worth it just for the way the girl says "yeah" and puts her head on her man's chest near the end.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Under the Bridges in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Christian Petzold, BPB Filmkanon (2003) Claudius Seidl, Steadycam (2007) Dominik Graf, Steadycam (2007) Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007) Michael Althen, Steadycam (2007) Rainer Gansera, Steadycam (2007) Wolfgang Hobel, Steadycam (2007) Moving Pictures: A Century of European Filmography 100 Films Illustrating the Quality of European Cinematography (2003) Taschen Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Shot in the final months of World War II, Unter den Brücken feels like a movie out of time. If no one told you, there'd be no way of knowing that Allied forces were already occupying Aachen and flying nightly raids over Berlin, that the Red Army was advancing through Eastern Prussia. In the relaxed world of Unter den Brücken, there's no war and no Final Solution, just a Havel barge named Liselotte and its joint owners, Hendrik (Carl Raddatz) and Willy (Gustav Knuth). Tired of the lonely river life, the two bargees both fall for the same displaced Schlesian girl trying to make a living in Berlin, given wonderful life by Hannelore Schrott. The worst danger these characters face is heartbreak.
Marcel Carné and Jean Vigo are frequently cited as influences on Käutner's poetic touch, and rightfully so. Unter den Brücken sparkles with loveable throwaway gestures, richly textured cinematography, and sound design that's so evocative that Käutner dedicates an entire scene to the plop of frogs in the water, the crunch of rope against the hull, and the wind in the reeds. The film's good-natured spirit never leaves it even during the saddest third-act reversals, and the big-hearted resolution suggests a stubborn capacity for peace and hope in the face of the global conflagration raging just out of sight.
-Jürgen Fauth, About.com
The film–atypically shot largely on location–offers a relaxed, languid atmosphere and subtle performances that amazingly belie little of the chaos and mounting devastation in the final days of the war. Käutner understands that the film’s romanticism will only work if it takes its time, and he allows the drama to unfold with unruffled ease. Scenes involving characters sitting on a deck at night, listening to the diversity of natural sounds, or sharing a moment while playing an accordion in the dwindling twilight typify the plot. Käutner applies a great deal of visual sophistication with moody chiaroscuro lighting and unexpectedly graceful camera movements that intensify the emotions with Ophülsian relish.
- Doug Cummings, Film Journey.org
Under the Bridges is actually my favorite film. Anyone who sees it today would not be able to understand that at the time, when there was no future any more and Germany's final collapse was a question of days, it was possible to film such a simple, almost idyllic story... When I really think about it, what we did arose from the film makers' stubbornness to allow any of the horror which surrounded us to seep into our work.
- Helmut Käutner, quoted in Marc Silberman, German Cinema: Texts in Context. Published by Wayne State University Press, 1995. Page 263.
ABOUT HELMUT KAUTNER
"Helmut Käutner has made 36 films for the big screen. Those you will have to watch for yourself." The dry wit and subliminal challenge of this assessment at the beginning of Marcel Neudeck’s fine half-hour portrait Wer Ist Helmut Käutner? (Who Is Helmut Käutner, 2008)—itself the work of a waning filmkritik tradition, the scholarly television documentary—might have pleased the master himself. Käutner, who (like his peer David Lean) would have turned 100 on March 25, liked his comedy double-edged, whether elegant and understated or raucous and sharp. His tragedies are no less ambivalent. A humanist intellectual, whose layered studies of conflicting social forces and individual fates may have been too subtle for the culture surrounding them, Käutner qualifies as one of the pantheon directors of German cinema, possibly even the nation’s finest major filmmaker of the sound era save, perhaps, Fassbinder.
- Christoph Huber, Moving Image Source
Kautner is counted among the directors who produced high quality, unpolitical entertainment films in the second half of the Third Reich. He is claimed to be one of the few representatives of "film art" in German fascism. Others detect in his filmmaking a sign of political opposition in the resistance to the aesthetics of the fascist narrative. From this perspective the absence of violence, heroic themes, and visual monumentality opens a space for playfulness and formal concerns which were otherwise considered suspect if not decadent by the film censors. Common to both of these positions is, first, an appreciation of the filmmaker's technical competence and, second, the wish to vindicate that quality as something beyond fascism. Yet the film industry was a priority interest for Goebbel's propaganda ministry, one of the most highly scrutinized and carefully controlled branches of an administered culture and subject to intervention at every step. Hence, to recognize artistic or creative achievements as exceptions to the rule does not obviate the need to understand how these films too produce illusions of escapism within the fascist system.
Helmut Kautner is particularly interesting in this respect because the nine films he completed during The Third Reich have been recognized as his most successful, despite a long career as director extending into the seventies. He is often singled out as the most brilliant film talent to have emerged during the National-Socialist regime, a director whose early films evoke an atmosphere identified with the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch and Max Ophuls and whose style reflects the influence of the French cinema identified with names like Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carne. His most striking achievement within the norms of Goebbels' film industry, however, was the ability to combine the talents of scriptwriter and director, for Kautner was unique among Third Reich filmmakers for having written or coauthored the scripts for all his films. This enabled him to exercise a rigor few other directors enjoyed, especially those involved in the production of entertainment features. Kautner's witty dialogues, the careful dramaturgy with its superb sense of timing and rhythm, the mobile camera, the varied editing techniques, and the meticulous handling of light and shadow reveal a high degree of subtlety and a sensitivity for visual detail while highlighting the utter impoverishment of aesthetic understanding among the majority of film directors.
- Marc Silberman, German Cinema: Texts in Context. Published by Wayne State University Press, 1995. Page 82.
We shall speak of the gratitude that the young art of film has to express to the old art of the theater independently of any current event.
This gratitude is almost never expressed, for between the two, film and theater, there gapes the rift between the generations, the age-old contrast between parents and children. If film and theater move apart in debate over the theory or practice of art, then they simply move apart. Unfortunately, they never get together. Were they to do so, they would realize that they have more in common than they have in opposition.
A look at the lineage and the development of the theater marks out the path for film. It provides film with the artistic goal of achieving a total artwork appropriate to its form. Through its centuries-long struggle for expression and appearance, the theater has smoothed the artistic paths for film to such an extent that film was able to succeed in reaching the vicinity of absolute art in the short time of its existence. It, too, needs the poet in order to raise itself, as the theater did in its time, from entertainment to an art form. It, too, need uniquely creative personalities, as, for example, Neuberin and Lessing were for the theater, in order to find the laws unique to it. It thanks the eloquent example of the theater for being able to walk these paths with a clear goal before its eyes.
- Helmut Kautner (translated by Lance W. Garmer). From "Gratitude toward the Theater" (1945). Published in German essays on film, by Richard W. McCormick, Alison Guenther-Pal. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. Pages 167, 168.