Knee-deep already in collective scrutiny of its painful World War II history, Germany wades in up to its own neck with a viscerally unsparing drama — originally a TV miniseries — set to screen in two parts in selected U.S. theaters.
Generation War tracks five jaunty young childhood friends as they prepare to scatter from a Berlin bar in 1941 to do their bit for the Thousand Year Reich. With Kristallnacht fresh in memory and Stalingrad looming, you'd think even these frisky young things might know better than to expect to reunite unscathed for Christmas.
Instead they dance, sing, drink, and try on silly hats — then go forth into four years of carnage and chaos that will shred every illusion they cherish, and squeeze from their shattered minds and bodies every drop of faith in German invincibility.
With its brutal battle sequences and a robustly soapy character arc, the expertly commercial Generation War has been compared to the American series Band of Brothers. The comparison is not inapt: Series television is uniquely equipped to evoke not just the horrors of full-on battle, but the arguably greater agony soldiers face as they hang around in a perpetual state of emergency, under unspeakable conditions of cold and hunger.
Yet for Germans of all ages, the political and moral stakes are more urgent. For them, two urgent questions hang over the period: Who knew, and All This For What?
Based on testimony from a dwindling supply of Third Reich survivors, the series equivocates on the first question while confronting the second head-on. Writer Stefan Kolditz and director Philipp Kadelbach dispose of the popular myth that the Nazi Wehrmacht — the rank-and-file armed forces — committed fewer atrocities than did the paramilitary SS. Generation War forces us to see that cruelty and indifference to suffering were not only practiced institutionally but individually, by nice young people to whom we grow ever more attached even as they progressively alienate us.
Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a Red Cross nurse at the Russian front who's swallowed Nazi anti-Semitism whole, casually betrays a Jewish prisoner she's befriended in the field hospital where both work. Her friend Greta (Katharina Schuttler) tries to save her Jewish lover Viktor (Ludwig Trepke) from deportation to Auschwitz, while sleeping with a senior Nazi officer (Mark Waschke) who furthers her singing career. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), a gung-ho lieutenant who heaps scorn on his gun-shy younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), blindly obeys orders to shoot a prisoner, yet turns out to have feet of clay himself.
The series sends all five friends on a bracing journey into despair. It's anything but romantic about individual destiny or just deserts, and unsentimental about the way war rides rough-shod over believers and cynics, careerists and do-gooders alike. Those who survive do so through dumb luck (or handy connections) rather than blind faith — or even the clearer vision of Friedhelm, an intellectual who shies away from ideology. Asked by a new recruit how he's managed to survive as long as he has, Friedhelm replies, "You resist the temptation to be human."
Small acts of courage, mercy and self-sacrifice bob now and then to the surface. But Generation War holds the line admirably in showing how totalitarianism corrupts almost everything in its path, individual responsibility included, and creates an appalling space where sadists and conformists alike can flourish and break every rule of war at will.
In this regard, communism fares only a little better than fascism in Generation War — which is why this bracing movie ought to be required viewing not just in Germany, where it was seen and hotly debated by more than 7 million viewers, but wherever absolutism holds sway. (Recommended)