After delivering one of the most vital war movies of all time in 1957 with “Paths Of Glory,” only a year later Kubrick was tinkering with the idea of doing another one. Shifting focus to World War II, Kubrick wanted to tell a story from the German point of view, and he teamed with former paratrooper Richard Adams to pen “The German Lieutenant.” According to the book “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust,” studios weren’t too interested in the project that was being developed under the Harris-Kubrick banner, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating story.
Set in 1945 in the dying days of the war, the plot centers on Lieutenant Oskar Kraus and Lieutenant Paul Dietrich, friends and officers who are ordered to be dropped behind enemy lines to blow up a railway bridge. It’s widely viewed by the soldiers as a suicide mission, and Kraus even flirts with deserting, but decides to stay with Dietrich who is enthusiastically embracing the job. But from the start the mission goes awry, with the soldiers dropped in broad daylight instead of under cover of night, resulting in many dying in the process. But Dietrich plows ahead with the goal of destroying the bridge, even as Kraus argues its futility as the German army’s defeat is inevitable. The Germans are eventually taken prisoner, and kept waiting in the middle of the bridge by American forces, who believe (rightly) that it has been wired to explode, but are still uncertain. Dietrich inspires his men to keep this plan secret, and when they are eventually ordered off the bridge by American troops, the bridge does indeed blow up. But is the mission a success? Was the cost of German lives worth it as the war is ultimately soon lost? And with a coda that includes seeing Dietrich in a tedious postal service job after the war, the implication is that his last heroic stand was meaningless.
As per usual with Kubrick’s films, “The German Lieutenant” exists in a moral gray area, with two leads who defy easy categorization. An intriguing element included a movie-within-the-movie entitled “Romance At The Blue Danube” and perhaps ironically, the name Paul Dietrich is the same as the lead in the anti-war film “All Quiet On The Western Front.”
While Kubrick would apparently later tell Jan Harlan he had no idea why he pursued this project, in an interview in 1959 with Film Quarterly’s Colin Young (collected in the book “Stanley Kubrick: Interviews”) the filmmaker shared his interest in the subject matter.
“To begin with, one of the attractions of a war or crime story is that it provides an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual of our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value, which the audience becomes fully aware of, and which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation,” he said. “Further, war acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallize and come into the open. Conflict is natural, when it would in a less critical situation have to be introduced almost as a contrivance, and would thus appear forced, or -- even worse -- false. Eisenstein, in his theoretical writings about dramatic structure, was often guilty of oversimplification. The black and white contrasts of ‘Alexander Nevsky’ do not fit all drama. But war does permit this kind of contrast -- and spectacle. And within these contrasts you can begin to apply some of the possibilities of film - of the sort explored by Eisenstein.”
While Kubrick would move on to other projects, you can see what he might have intended with “The German Lieutenant” by reading the script right here.