When “Generation War” aired on German television last year under the title “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” the three-night miniseries had people across the country arguing its merits, both artistic and political. Though the World War II drama, now repackaged for U.S. theaters as a two-part film, averaged more than 7 million viewers each night, not everyone loved it. Some critics found fault with the story’s relegation of Nazis to a background role and its focus on ordinary, or at least, racially tolerant Germans.
The essence of the complaints was that it let a dying generation off too easily — specifically, the generation that built and fought for the Third Reich. Crafting a story around the fates of five 20-year-old best friends from Berlin, none of whom is a Nazi, and one of whom is a Jew, is a convenient fiction, some said.
In truth, however, “Generation War” is no more convenient than any number of American World War II dramas that do exactly the opposite and demonize all Germans by turning every one, without nuance, into a frothing-at-the-mouth stormtrooper. Isn’t making monsters out of people just as bad as trying to find the human heart that beats in the breast of the criminal?
“Generation War” has mixed success in explaining the atrocities that were committed. The films are highly entertaining and highly disturbing, in the latter case for both the right and the wrong reasons. While admirably delineating moral decay, which eats away at one character like a virus, the movies never really get at the seed of evil.
And maybe that never can be explained. When the film opens, sin is already in full flower.
Covering a period of about four years, from the summer of 1941 until just after German capitulation in 1945, “Generation War” is narrated by Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch), a young and honorable army officer who is heading for the Eastern Front with his younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), a bookish and cynical enlisted man. Joining them is Charlotte (Mirian Stein), an idealistic army nurse with an as-yet-unrequited love for Wilhelm. Their pals Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), a Jewish tailor, and his Christian girlfriend, Greta (Katharina Schüttler), an aspiring singer, stay behind. With the exception of Viktor, who can read the writing on the wall, all of these young people think the war will be over by Christmas, and everything will return to normal.
The story, which gives the lie to that naive view, jumps between three fronts: the war in the trenches, the military hospitals just behind them and civilian life. Though director Philipp Kadelbach occasionally leans a little heavily on cliche — I could have done with less agonized wailing every time the camera cuts to Charlotte’s infirmary — “Generation War” looks and sounds great. The performances are believably gritty, and the story, if soap operatic at times, is never less than engrossing.
Moral compromises lie like mines in the paths of all participants. Wilhelm is forced, against his principles, to shoot a captured Russian officer because of the Nazi policy of executing Communist officers. Greta begins sleeping with an SS officer (Mark Waschke) in order to try to obtain safe-passage documents for Viktor. And Charlotte, somewhat ambivalent, rats out a Russian Jew (Christiane Paul) who has been volunteering in her field hospital, and whom she has befriended. Even Viktor finds himself facing an impossible decision as he contemplates fleeing to America but leaving his parents behind.
“Generation War” nicely apportions screen time to each of these story lines. It also spreads the guilt around: Members of the Polish resistance are portrayed as vicious anti-Semites when they discover that Viktor, who had escaped an Auschwitz-bound train, is Jewish. Later, Russian troops are shown to be barbaric rapists. Each of these caricatures, while supported by some historical evidence, has been criticized by viewers. In fairness, “Generation War’s” extremes make for better drama than subtly shaded storytelling.
Friedhelm’s evolution is the most fascinating thread. Cowardly at first, he morphs with cogent psychological complexity from a pacifist into a killing machine, or maybe a survival machine. Late in the second film, when Friedhelm shoots a fleeing child in the back without compunction, he appears to be doing it only to save himself, though he also, at one point, saves Viktor. (Preposterously, all five characters keep crossing paths, as if all of Eastern Europe were no bigger than a park in Berlin.)
At that point, Friedhelm appears as lost, in his soul, as Christopher Walken’s suicidal character in “The Deer Hunter.” The gun in his hand may be pointed at others, but he’s just as doomed by it.
Greta, for her part, is eventually imprisoned for making defeatist comments about the war effort. Her damnation for being a fallen woman, and Friedhelm’s, for moral opportunism, seem the harshest punishment, cinematically speaking. In that sense, the movie’s version of history isn’t all that newfangled or revisionist after all. It’s as retrograde — if also as perversely intoxicating — as an old Hollywood melodrama.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence, sex, crude language and lots of smoking. In German, Russian and Polish with subtitles. Part 1 is 131 minutes; Part 2 is 148 minutes.