Sturm und drang

Pub date March 4, 2014
SectionFilm Review

FILM It is awkward, no doubt, living in a land whose 20th-century legacy was becoming synonymous with evil — “Nazi,” “Hitler,” and “Holocaust” are still terms we use in describing or comparing the absolute worst human behaviors. Toward the end of Generation War, a three-part TV miniseries being shown here as a two-part movie, one character anticipates the cultural amnesia of peacetime by saying “Soon there will only be Germans and not a single Nazi.” That’s a canny statement in a nearly five-hour soap opera that doesn’t have quite enough of them.

Postwar Germany willed itself not only into economic rehabilitation, but into becoming one of the world’s more politically progressive and socially tolerant societies. (With exceptions, of course.) No doubt part of this was a function of guilt, and younger generations’ determination not to repeat the past. But it must also have been driven by a desire to bury that past as discreetly as possible without actually seeming to do so. Neo-Nazi freaks aside, you won’t likely now meet anyone in Germany who pledged allegiance to Hitler. Nor would you have 30 or 50 years ago. Even (or especially) guards at Auschwitz shared in the selective national amnesia that followed capitulation and the subsequent revelations of war atrocities. It’s understandable, if not entirely to be sympathized with: How do you live publicly with being on the side of the exterminators? You don’t, that’s how. You gradually build up personal distance until it’s a wall scarcely more abstract than the one that came down to reunite Germany in 1989.

Generation War was originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, to underline the relevancy of the discussion it’s presumably trying to stir at home — even if for many viewers the war generation would have been their grandparents’. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, it starts out in dismayingly hackneyed fashion as we’re introduced to our youthful protagonists. Celebrating a birthday in 1941 near the war’s start, when Axis victory seems assured, they pose for a photo you know damn well is going to be the heart-tugging emblem of innocence horribly lost for the next 270 minutes.

There’s true-blue Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), who’s already served one tour of duty to the west, and is now heading to the Eastern front with younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), a dreamy pacifist. In love with Wilhelm but annoyingly reluctant — for years on end — to say so is sugary Charlotte (Miriam Stein), herself headed to the front as a nurse. Staying behind are Greta (Katharina Schüttler), who fancies herself the next Marlene Dietrich, and her boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who can’t convince his willfully oblivious parents that German Jews like themselves are in mortal danger.

Needless to say, all illusions are eventually dashed. Amid the grueling, endless, disastrous campaign against the Soviet Union, Wilhelm is embarrassed by his “cowardly” brother until the latter adapts to pervasive inhumanity by becoming a cold killing machine himself. Charlotte overcomes her squeamishness at the daily hospital carnage while retaining her compassion. Greta does become famous, thanks to the high-ranking Gestapo patron (Mark Waschke) she sleeps with. But the prima donna arrogance she develops proves perilous, and her attempts to get Viktor smuggled out to safety go awry — escaping a train headed to a concentration camp, he joins a group of Polish partisans scarcely less anti-Semitic than the Nazis.

Fast-paced yet never achieving the psychological depth of similarly scaled historical epics, Generation War grows most interesting in its late going, when for all practical purposes the Allies have already won the war (at least in Europe), but Germany continues to self-destruct. Imminent peace provides no relief for protagonists who’ve survived only to find themselves fucked no matter what side they stay on, or surrender to.

That moral and situational complexity is too often missing in a narrative that aims for sympathy via simplicity. None of the protagonists are “really” Nazis — they’re mysteriously free of racial prejudice and other drummed-in ideological points, even if (for a while) they dutifully speak about serving der Fatherland. (Only bad, subsidiary people seem to buy into those concepts; Wilhelm is never shown killing women or children, and the death camps remain off-screen.) The underrated recent film version of The Book Thief (2013) was criticized for soft-pedaling the era, but it was about (and from the viewpoint of) somewhat sheltered Aryan children living in a civilian wartime. Generation War‘s characters are of exactly the age to be fully indoctrinated young zealots, yet none of them seems touched by National Socialist dogma. Even though it’s mid-1941 when we meet them, they act like official anti-Semitism is still a some minor, misguided inconvenience.

Of course such naiveté is designed to maximize their later disillusionment. But War doesn’t even try to approach the serious analysis of national character in something like Ursula Hegi’s great novel Stones from the River, in which we come to understand how time, propaganda, and preyed-upon weaknesses can turn a town of perfectly nice Germans into fascists capable of turning a blind eye toward the Final Solution. Embarrassingly, this shallower fiction tries in the end to pass itself off as truth: Before the closing credits we’re given birth and death dates of principal characters as if they were inspired by real people. (One purportedly lives still.) It’s one thing when some dumb horror movie opens with “Based on a true story” — wanna buy a bridge too? — but in this context, the fib is worse than disingenuous, it’s slimy.

In addition to being hugely popular at home, Generation War stirred considerable controversy (not least among insulted Poles), which is good. “Never forget,” indeed — but for such a big populist cultural event, it’s an awfully soft reminder. If it were one of the 1970s miniseries it recalls, it wouldn’t be relatively hard-hitting Roots, but Rich Man, Poor Man, in which tough sociopolitical issues of postwar America were whipped into sudsy melodrama cloaked in somber self-seriousness. *


GENERATION WAR opens March 14 in San Francisco.