One of the problems with characters who mostly stay silent, is that their actions can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. This can lead to dangerously misleading assumptions, far from what the author originally intended.
Spoilers up until the most recent chapters, obviously.
With the revelation of him having the ability to morph into the series’ primary antagonist, the colossal titan, Shingeki no Kyojin‘s Bert has become one of these characters. As a result, people’s opinions of him changed as suddenly as his transformation. For most of Shingeki‘s readers, Bert used to be something of a joke character, lacking any presence with his round-the-clock sweating and nervous demeanor reaching memetic status. He wasn’t as manly or reliable like his comrade Reiner, not as amusingly inappropriate as Sasha, and not as… Well, Jean as Jean. There was little for people to latch onto, as shown in the first Shingeki character poll where he came in at a pitiful fourteen, slightly above other trainee Connie. But in the space of a chapter, Bert has managed to become one of the series’ most hotly debated characters – for better or worse.
To many readers, he’s no longer that one guy who sweats up a storm. They have become quick to point all his stares and awkward gestures out as being the cold motions of a shrewd Machiavellian villain. From a couple of panels scattered here and there, proof for him being an utter sociopath, having no qualms about taking lives has reared its titanic muscled head. Bert takes delight in ruining the prospect of someone set to live a cushy life within the Walls, and mocks the death of Eren’s mother by offering a single dry line as an apology? While I can see where those people who hold the opinion that he’s ‘evil’ are coming from, in a way, I have to ultimately disagree on how they’re assessing his personality. Could you imagine Bert being the cartoonishly maniacal mastermind people are currently making him out to be? Bert, the guy who quietly sat in his bunk reading?
A lot of images featuring Bert with a yandere sort of look has popped up on Pixiv in recent weeks. Now, I don’t know if these people have been experiencing the same series we all have been, but I have trouble imagining Bert saying “I’ll protect you~” à la Gasai Yuno. While Jean was lamenting on how the titan invasion had to happen the day before he was due to enter the inner sanctum, Bert stayed by his side looking flustered as usual, not chuckling about it. With apologizing for the death of Eren’s mother, all he could offer was a single sentence which succinctly summed up his feelings. It was nowhere near good enough, but for someone like Bert, it was the only kind of apology which could be offered taking the nature of his character into account. And so many people fail to realize that.
In truth, Bert is one of the more pitiful characters in Shingeki‘s surprisingly complex cast. In the official Shingeki guidebook, his self-confidence is ranked 1/10. Due to that and his inability to change, he enters a vicious cycle fueled by intense self-loathing and trepidation. With the knowledge of being the colossal titan and the root of all the suffering that unfurls before him occurring, he becomes more withdrawn and detached from the people whose lives he has knowingly destroyed. This extends to the only people who could possibly understand the situation he’s in – Reiner and Annie. If Bert possessed a more assertive nature, he would have been able to stop them and neither of his comrades would be in the situations they’ve unfortunately fallen into. He could have nipped their frenzied feelings in the bud and adhered wholly to their mission. But he doesn’t, and he didn’t.
If he were as truly emotionless as people say he is, he would have been able to capably and swiftly save them without batting an eyelid. He would have been able to look Eren in the eye when apologizing for his mother’s death without breaking a sweat instead of showing that shadowed thousand-yard stare. It’s because Bert cares too much that he simply couldn’t and that is what ultimately becomes his downfall. He’s undeniably cowardly, deathly afraid of his identity being made known. It’s what’s on his mind above all. Once the rest of the cast find out, he bursts into tears instead of trying to fob off what Reiner said as he’s made to finally face the consequences of what he’s done. When Annie deflects from the team, Bert is the only character who throws a panicked glance at her from behind while the rest of the team face forward, their own goals in mind. At the time, it might not have meant much. But now we can take that distressingly desperate look as a sign of Bert’s internal struggle. Should he continue to remain loyal to his mission and have the chance of a lifetime by entering the military’s sacred inner sanctum, or does he stay with his comrade, Reiner, who he can tell something is not quite right with and whose side he simply cannot leave?
After all, Reiner has been with him through thick and thin. Wherever he’s to be found, Bert never strays far from his side. For someone who he’s allegedly been with all his life, Bert has to watch Reiner completely discard everything they’ve worked towards for a chance at playing human. While Bert’s panic continues to subtly consume him, Reiner becomes just as bad – if not worse. Unable to cope with what he has done to his team and everyone else living in their world, he retreats into the welcoming arms of delusion where he eventually comes to believe that he’s no longer a savage warrior set on destruction, but a soldier. Soldiers serve the state, with pride and honour. They’re able to stand with their heads held high, safe in the knowledge that they’re trying to improve the world that they live in by sacrificing their lives for the greater cause. In becoming a soldier and falling deeper into the role, he begins to suffer from dissociative episodes where even he becomes unsure of who he truly is. Bert remains by his friend’s side while Reiner struggles with his tenuous grasp on reality.
Despite what people may say, Bert’s reactions towards Reiner as he grows closer to the other team members are not passive-aggressive. His pointed looks are there to show the reader the internal struggles he’s unable to voice. Taking that into account, his reason for being portrayed as a mostly silent character up until recently becomes clear. After all, Isayama said that Shingeki is a story which is meant to be reread, where past irrelevant lines and scenes take on entirely different meanings. If Bert could have, he would have told Reiner to snap out of it. Countless times. He wouldn’t have let him lose sight of who he truly is and his ultimate role, in order to keep him focused on the mission. Same applies for Annie. Bert passively lets others lead, having no real will of his own. During an early chapter where he, Reiner, Eren, and Armin hold a discussion about their pasts, Bert notes that the people who went to join the police force do so because it’s expected of them, not necessarily because they want to. He then rather dolefully remarks that he’s just as much a coward. Does Bert say this with an awareness of all the atrocities he has committed, remorse noticeably lying in his words? Or was it a justification for his personality preemptively given in case he got found at some point?
Even with such murky thoughts lingering on his conscious, Bert still chooses to let Eren and Armin know what happened to their village when the titans invaded all those years ago. Following this rare reflection, Reiner chides him. Once again, Bert anxiously looks down and apologizes. This marks a complete contrast to the more recent chapters where Reiner is the one who nonchalantly says things he shouldn’t. As he grows more absorbed in the role of being a courageous soldier, Reiner subconsciously comes to neglect Bert, a living reminder of his true self. He becomes taken with typically human ideals, such as being fascinated by a woman to the point where he hastily sees her as a marriage candidate. In chapter 46 he experiences a full on dissociative episode, clinging onto Christa and complaining about how fatigued he is while eschewing the real issue at hand. Is it any wonder the other three have had enough when it’s embarrassingly obvious he’s talking a load of bullshit?
When he and Bert are involved in a game of chess as they wait for news of the situation outside, Sasha and Connie lazily speak of their individual hometowns. Reiner offers to help out, completely switching gears and abandoning the game they were deeply consumed with seconds beforehand. While Bert’s expression doesn’t change all throughout, it becomes shrouded in darkness in contrast to the other characters who’ve their faces bathed in light. With Bert being dangerously overly reliant on Reiner, this exchange must have hurt. When Reiner later asks him to help out with Connie soon after, Bert hesitates for a moment before agreeing. Due to Bert being unable to get closer to the rest of the team, Reiner is all he has. He mightn’t be the most clever out of the cast, but he’s not an idiot. He recognizes that Reiner is drifting away from him, and if he doesn’t do anything he’ll continue to. His cowardly, anxious self comes between him and helping his friend.
During the breach arc all of Bert’s sublimated feelings come to a head as he musters up courage and makes one last ditch attempt at saving his friend. While Reiner is all gung ho about leading the team to victory against those nasty titans, Bert uncharacteristically yells at him to wait. It doesn’t work. Going further still, when he speaks of Reiner being a warrior, one of the more shocking moments in their friendship comes with Reiner no longer being consciously aware of what he means. Even though all Bert can do is look on in pity and confusion, he tried. He seriously fucking tried, and we have to at least give him credit for that. Him finally trying to snap Reiner out of it in chapter 46 fails the first time, and doesn’t actually say what he’s been bottling up until he’s prompted to by Ymir. While simultaneously being the one thing Reiner can’t bear as well as being his means of keeping him grounded, his words finally break the spell. Too bad it was a case of too little, too late and Bert’s cowardice played an equally devastating part in all this.
A warrior in their eyes, means doing things for a more noble goal even if it results in their hands getting dirty. They fight for their themselves, and no one else. A soldier is someone who’s above all that, and will sacrifice themselves for the greater good instead of others. Having lost that devil-may-care attitude and achieving a sense of comradeship with his team mates, while Reiner certainly has the soul of a soldier, he’ll ever be able to truly become one.
When he’s being attacked by a titan, he snaps out of it on Bert saving him and says they’ll return to their hometown. Relieved, Bert is in agreement. How fragile must one’s mental state be, if they can swiftly switch identities. It’s quite frankly disturbing how deeply into the role of a soldier he has lowered himself into – to the detriment of his sanity, friendship with Bert, and overall mission. With that dangerous mentality, becoming aware that his own team member murdered his childhood friend, lack of sleep and food and overall mental fatigue, it’s no wonder that he snapped. With no one thinking straight after an absolutely hellish night, Reiner chooses to blurt out the one thing Bert never wanted him to – their identities. It was a foolish move, a foolish reveal. Who would have thought the true identity of the series’ iconic warped anatomy model would have a nervous teenager at its core?
Spurred on by thoughts of returning home, Reiner chooses to forsake the mission which was gradually tearing him apart by wanting to speed things up a bit. Its result proves disastrous for everyone, leading to them both transforming (one deliberately, the other on a panicked impulse after being injured) and having to escape. Even then, it still doesn’t hit Reiner until Ymir gives a cold, but accurate analysis of his situation. This post wasn’t written with excusing their actions in mind, for what they have done to humanity is unforgivable. For that, it’s unlikely that redemption exists for the troubled pair. Neither of them are doing things for the evulz, but just because they’re not doesn’t make things okay. Genocide has always been first and foremost on their minds, justifying their actions with childish defense mechanisms such as Bert’s preemptive “I have no will of my own” and Reiner’s “what do you want us to do?” in chapter 46. But people forget, that these guys are still kids who are unable to face what they’ve done. They took the Wall when they were between eleven and twelve years old, for crying out loud!
They’re nowhere near perfect, and I have to hand it to Isayama for not making Bert and Reiner overly sympathetic, with the reader having the chance to read between the lines to work out the intricacies in their distorted friendship (or at least, they did until Ymir stated as much in the most recent chapter).
Only time will tell, if the role of a warrior and soldier even mean anything in their world anymore.