The fifth video in our ongoing series is the first to involve a film on my own top ten list for the Sight & Sound Film Poll. But I’m not one of the commentators on the video. Nor is the film on the top ten list of either of the commentators. But somehow the three of us form “an inclusive whole” (to use a phrase in the video) to make the case for why Helmut Käutner’s Under the Bridges is one of the greatest films ever made.
I first watched the film three years ago as part of Shooting Down Pictures, where I started producing video essays. My viewing of the film came weeks before a trip to Berlin, where I discussed my video essays in public for the first time, as part of the series Kunst der Vermittlung (translated as “Cultural Education” according to Google) organized by Stefan Pethke, Michael Baute, Volker Pantenburg, Stefanie Schluter and Erik Stein. This was an extensive series of screenings and talks dedicated to showcasing film criticism and scholarship performed within the medium of film and video.
I was really taken by the project organizers’ enthusiasm for this sub-genre of filmmaking and film criticism, and proposed to collaborate on a video essay on Under the Bridges. Michael Baute accepted the invitation and also enlisted the help of Ekkehard Knörer, editor of the film journal Cargo and one of Germany’s leading film critics. We met at Michael’s apartment in Kreuzberg, I with my recording equipment and Michael and Ekkehard with a voiceover script they prepared. We recorded the narration; later that day Michael accompanied me on a boat tour of Berlin’s Spree River, where we filmed several bridges, thinking it might be a good visual element for the video. I concluded my visit happily and went back to the States with freshly recorded footage ready to edit.
Three years later, the video is finished. I’ll refrain from listing extenuating circumstances for why it took three years to make this video essay. I’ve already apologized to my collaborators, and I am happy to report that they are satisfied with the results. This comes as a relief to me, because the quality of their commentary is such that it may have caused some trepidation on my part, contributing to the delay. Until that time, I had never been handed such an eloquent and extensively prepared narration with which to produce a video. In fact, this narration played no small part in opening my eyes to the splendor of this film.
Knörer and Baute talk about the film’s attempt to create beauty in the most unlikely and unyielding circumstances: the end of the Nazi regime, with bombs falling all over Berlin and hardly any resources for filmmaking. They talk about a film whose style embodies a richness borne of poverty: finding the sublime in the most quotidian images and slightest of gestures. They talk about the alchemy of filmmaking, creating miraculous effects out of an improbable scenario bordering on a whimsical absurdity out of touch with the reality of its times – and yet strangely appropriate, even necessary. Necessary because of the small, delicate, and redemptive human touches that float across the screen from start to finish, and that culminate in a feeling of unassuming yet profound grace.
As modest in its brilliance as it is brilliant in its modesty, Under the Bridges is precisely the kind of film that deserves to benefit from an exercise like the Sight & Sound Critics Poll. While many come to the list curious about the new consensus over what the greatest films are, many others are craving to discover lesser-known titles that others passionately cherish. This is such a film. Please watch this video, and learn about one of the greatest films ever made. – Kevin B. Lee
Michael Baute works as an author, critic and curator and in various media-related projects. Since 2001 he is a contributor to the weblog newfilmkritik. In 2006 he (together with Volker Pantenburg) published a book on Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. Recently he’s been the artistic director of Kunst der vermittlung, a website and screening series exploring the art of video-form criticism.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.
EK: “Under the bridges” is a film about Willy and Hendrik, two skippers on a cargo barge who, as a song sung by one of them makes explicitly clear, have led a skipper’s promiscuous life. This, however, they have now decided, has to come to an end. They are, very literally, on the lookout for a woman to love. They both are, which brings up the issue of their friendship, their life together on this barge named Lotte. “Under the bridges” on the surface is not much more than a romantic comedy about these two men and their attempt to find a way of integrating a woman in their unsteady lives. But “Under the bridges” is far stranger than it seems. It was shot in wartime, from May to October 1944. You wouldn’t know from the film. The Berlin you see is a city in peace. Its buildings are unscathed. Indeed, everything here, these industrial buildings, the landscapes and even these people and their relationships, seem made up from the scraps of better times. But they had no means at all, no money, when they did it, bombs were falling at the time, it really is an arte povera film.
MB: The question then becomes: Is this escapism? The devastations of real life in Germany at the time seem purposefully suppressed in every single image and montage. But at the same time something else makes itself felt underneath the peaceful floating of the barge and the joking and the erotic innuendo. “Under the bridges” is in every respect a film about having to make do, about never expecting too much, about confining yourself to what is near. This is true of Hendrik and Willy who are never es free and independent as they seem. There is even an explicit symbol for that in the film: their barge lacks an engine so they have to rely on other boats taking their barge upriver.
EK: Anna, the woman, with whose fate theirs will be connected, is in quite similar a position. She has very recently arrived in Berlin from an Eastern province and her first attempt to find a partner has disastrously failed. When Hendrik and Willy “meet” her she is standing on a bridge, at night, throwing money in the water. Hendrik and Willy suspect that she may jump and follow the money, with suicidal intent. They take her on board and they begin, in their unassuming ways, wooing her. It seems an impossible task this story has set for itself: Making one out out of these three on an allegorically floating thing like this barge.
MB: There is a kind of suspense in the film that has little to do with the question of how to succeed with that. (And it is obvious that success can only lie in all of them finally taking something like a back seat.) No, the real suspense of the film has much to do with a back and forth of little charges and discharges. This is one of the film’s most intimate scenes. It is Anna’s first night on the boat, she can’t sleep, alone on a boat with two strangers, but also because of all the little noises. Hendrik, however, explains it to her. These natural sounds, made by the rope and the reed, are not noises, but in fact they are music. Natural life, the everyday, is in this way charged with the notion that in fact it is something more poetic. In this case: music. Listen to that.
EK: “Under the bridges” is a film about efforts, but in an almost paradoxical way: efforts are being made to make things seem effortless. It is a film where every feast is frugal, but frugality is made into a feast. And love, the feast of feasts, is effortlessly made into something on which not too many efforts, nor too many words or too many gestures or feelings should be spent. Modesty is what this film strives for, in the middle of a war it makes every effort to ignore. Efforts are visibly made, however, also on the aesthetic plane. “Under the bridges” is not simply a film in the vein of what very soon will be called neo-realism. The expressionist heritage makes itself felt in quite a few scenes playing with darkness and light. The camera moves in rather sophisticated ways, and also the actors are moving naturally and at the same time seem quite choreografed. The effortless flow Käutner achieves comes from his blending of these two seemingly contradictory movements.
MB: Let’s concentrate on two emblematic scenes. In the first one Hendrik comes to surprisingly visit Anna at her place. She lives in one of those Berlin courtyards. All she can see of the city is a cigarette ad on the wall of a building and a rather small aperture between the walls of this yard. And now they are intimately together. It is, in its very own way, the film’s major love scene. Nothing much happens but in this “nothing much” lies the core of this film’s ideology. You have to make do. Käutner manages to charge the most frugal rapprochment with a lot. This is the film’s most moving scene because it sums up what “Under the bridges” is all about: You have to be able to find the jubilatory in even the most everyday gesture. One later scene even plays out like a montage reminding of Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin, Symphony of a Big City”. We see Anna and Willy on a small lake in a much smaller boat. They stop, under a bridge, in the dark. What we experience here is more than one denouement. This is the moment when Willy learns that all his hopes are dashed, that Anna will never love him, but has always only loved Hendrik. All Käutner needs and wants at the moment is another very small gesture: Willy is lowering his head. He takes this blow in the most modest and gentle way possible.
EK: This most definitely is not a typical scene for the film. But it is decisive and absolutely necessary because it delivers all the plot details whose postponement has kept this potentially melodramatic story so low key before. All the melodramatic potential that Käutner so purposefully never unfolds is compressed into this fast and technically rather elaborate montage. It’s a film in the film, so to speak, that by absorbing most of the narrative as well as the emotional pressures makes possible the seeming effortlessness of the low key semi-comedic rest of the film. And, one could argue, the solution that will be found is only possible after this intricate denouement. This scene, I would say, is the film’s hidden engine. It makes the rest of it flow so effortlessly. The happy ending is no longer a miracle after that.