Crossing the Bridge of Spies


Annotations to Spielberg’s superb portrait of the Cold War era

Now that Bridge of Spies has received six Academy Awards nominations (facing tough competition), I want to invite all of you who have watched it to follow me on my quest for some fascinating details that can be found in the film…

Some of them might be new to you…

1. Opening sequence

A. Triple Self-Portrait

Abel is the story’s pivot point – he is the first person we see in Bridge of Spies. In the first shot, the camera tracks back slowly,
revealing Abel in in a threefold representation:

– as a reflection in a mirror
– as a film character
– as a self-portrait painting.

shot deals with a typical Spielberg theme: “reality“ vs. perception. It
is inspired by a painting of Spielberg’s favorite artist, Norman
Rockwell: Triple Self-Portrait (1960). Right in the beginning, Spielberg poses the central question: Who is Rudolf Abel? Is
he “a threat to all of us, a traitor“, a mean-spirited spy who seeks to
„drop bombs on us“? Or is he “a good soldier serving a foreign power“
or an “artist“ as Donovan calls him?

B. Range of communication

the first couple of minutes, Spielberg decides to refrain from any
spoken words. Abel listens to the ringing phone, picks it up but does
not talk before hanging up. The sequence underlines another of
Spielberg’s favorite topics in this film: communication, its opposite
and its absence.

Communication: Spielberg’s
preceding film, Lincoln, demonstrated that persistent negotiations lead
to mutual agreements that help to solve pressing issues of society.
Bridge of Spies is not different: With his disarming words, Donovan
builds bridges on his quest for basic rights that are endangered during
the Cold War era. He wants to keep espionage “chess figures” from being

Dysfunctional communication: The film
displays several variants of it, e.g. talking without listening (CIA
agent Hoffman), talking in different languages, intimidation,
interrogation, suppression of free speech, misinformation, propaganda…
The film’s most harrowing symbol for the lack of communication is the
Berlin wall, the very opposite of a bridge (and communication).

Silence: One of the film’s themes is secrecy. On the one hand, it’s the spy’s
pledge not to talk about any detail of their missions, on the other it’s
Donovan’s professional discretion as an attorney which is tested by the

2. Standing Man

Abel tells his attorney Donovan a story about a “stoikiy muzhik“, a
“standing man“ (unshaken by his adversaries). Later, Abel compares
Donovan to that man. In the final iconic image on the Glienicke Bridge,
Donovan is literally depicted as a “standing man“.

3. Handkerchiefs

makes a point of having several people in the film repeatedly use a
handkerchief, cleaning their nose. First, it’s Abel in prison, then it’s
Donovan catching a cold in Berlin. Finally, it’s CIA agent Hoffman.
Maybe Spielberg wants to tell us that they are all human beings, sharing
the sniffles (regardless of the nations they live in and their
different points of views).

4. Transistor Radio

manages to get a radio into the Soviet spy’s cell, so Abel can listen
to a broadcast of a Shostakovich concert. Silently listening to the
broadcast, Donovan and Abel share the music, which is a fundamental way
of communication between different nations and convictions. The
first film Spielberg centered around music as nonverbal communication
shared by different species was Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The radio in Abel’s cell happens to be a
portable transistor radio, an innovation at that time. Spielberg’s
father Arnold designed the first transistor computer at RCA.

So, on
another level, it’s a nice nod to Spielberg’s father who was the
director’s main inspiration to tell the story about the incidents in
Bridge of Spies
. Arnold Spielberg was on an
exchange visit to the USSR in 1960 when the U-2 spy plane crisis
occurred, resulting in tremendous fear and hostility between the two
nations. Steven Spielberg recalls the story as told to him by his

“The Russians were putting the pilot Gary
Powers’ helmet and his flight suit and the remains of the U-2 plane on
show for everyone in Russia to see. A military man saw my father’s
American passport and took him to the head of the queue and repeated
really angrily to the crowd, ‘look what your country is doing to us.’”

5. Berlin cinema

While in
West Berlin, Donovan and agent Hoffman walk past a cinema where one of
the movies playing is Eins, Zwei, Drei. It’s the German title of the
Cold War comedy One, Two, Three (1961), directed by Billy Wilder, one of
Spielberg’s mentors. The film is about an American business executive
who, like Donovan, must cross over into East Berlin and negotiate with
Soviet officials for the release of a political prisoner.

Other films displayed on the marquee are:

Das Geheimnis der schwarzen Koffer (1961) – an Edgar Wallace thriller, shot in Berlin and produced by Polish-born Artur Brauner.

(The Damned), a 1969 (!) Italian-German film directed by
Luchino Visconti, about a wealthy German industrialist family who are
doing business with the Nazi Party. The film was given an X rating.

(1960), directed by Spielberg’s friend Stanley Kubrick. A film about
Ancient Rome, featuring a prime example of a “standing man“.

Read more background stories on Bridge of Spies

Photo: © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox


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