by Matt Levine
Before we ask the question of whether Generation War sufficiently or properly confronts Germany’s lingering guilt over the Holocaust and World War II, let it be recognized that no film could hope to assuage a country’s demons for world-altering genocide. Expecting the film—which was originally made as a three-part miniseries for German television under the title Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers)—to provide a cathartic reckoning for the atrocities committed by the Third Reich is like expecting 12 Years a Slave, for example, to miraculously exculpate the United States for the racial exploitation (of either Native Americans or African slaves) that provided this country with its economic foundation. That being said, if Generation War did indeed attempt to confront German war guilt head-on, it has spectacularly failed in that regard—largely because no film so riddled with cliché and middlebrow formula could hope to provide any kind of vindicating epiphany. Some American reviews have tagged Generation War as a sort of Saving Private Ryan from the opposite perspective, but that’s not exactly a commendation; it’s somewhat perverse to see the tropes of outdated war movies reapplied to one of the most unsettling travesties in modern history, whether it’s perpetrated by Spielberg or German director Philipp Kadelbach (whose previous foray was a TV movie about the Hindenburg—the man knows how to plumb historical tragedy for modern entertainment).
Director: Philipp Kadelbach
Producers: Benjamin Benedict, Nico Hofmann, Jürgen Schuster
Writer: Stefan Kolditz
Cinematographer: David Slama
Editor: Bernd Schlegel
Music: Fabian Römer
Cast: Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Miriam Stein, Ludwig Trepte, Mark Waschke, Henriette Richter-Röhl, Götz Schubert, Christiane Paul, Sylvester Groth, Alina Levshin, Lucas Gregorowicz, Maxim Mehmet
Premiere: March 1, 2013 – German Television
US Theatrical Release: January 15, 2014
US Distributor: Music Box
Things start off strong, actually, as we’re immediately thrust into a wintry battle in northern Russia. Disorienting close-ups of sandbags morph into a slow-motion long shot of a German soldier running from Soviet fire; although the scene uses the kind of obnoxious time-altering effects used in Behind Enemy Lines, it’s an attention-grabbing opener that might mollify the audience’s fear of sitting down to watch a four-and-a-half hour, two-part war epic. Suddenly, though, a voiceover narrator’s obligatory exposition lends a bland description to the events onscreen, and we flash back to a group of five friends in Berlin in spring 1941, before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. This ensemble is an assortment of tired war-movie clichés: there’s the decorated Wehrmacht lieutenant, Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch), who believes fervently that Hitler will usher Germany into a prosperous future; his sensitive younger brother, Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), who reads poetry and wears an ascot and rapidly devolves into a hardened, murderous soldier; Wilhelm’s sweetheart Charlotte (Miriam Stein), who naively dreams of being a nurse on the warfront until she’s sickened by the carnage and callousness she witnesses there; the group’s Jewish friend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), a tailor whose sole defining characteristic is his Jewishness; and Viktor’s cavalier girlfriend, Greta (Katharina Schüttler), who dreams of fame and glory and soon begins sleeping with a sleazy SS officer in order to procure immigration papers for Viktor (though if her affiliation with a well-heeled Nazi commandant helps her become an adored singer, so much the better). The five friends vow to reunite in a tiny Berlin bar around Christmastime, optimistically believing the war will be over in a matter of months. Of course, they’re in for a brutal disillusionment, as they come to realize how much they’ve been betrayed by their Führer and his promises of imminent Teutonic glory.
Of these fairly predictable storylines, the relationship between Wilhelm and Friedhelm is the most compelling. The juxtaposition between the prodigal son decorated with war medals and the pacifistic intellectual whose father can only treat him with sneering disdain is hardly original, but Bruch and Schilling do what they can with these standby roles. As an initially traumatized Friedhelm adopts the murderous tactics of his motherland, his brother charts the opposite progression, ultimately refusing to participate in the Third Reich’s reign of terror and deserting the army. Particularly effective is an early scene in which Friedhelm, still in the early stages of his desensitization, blatantly smokes a cigarette while standing guard in a field surrounded by Soviet soldiers—each conspicuous puff of the cigarette practically an invitation for his enemies to shoot him and end his misery. It may be dimestore nihilism, nowhere near as effective as anything in the writing of John Dos Passos (among others), but it’s a powerful moment nonetheless. Otherwise, though, these parallel storylines connect the dots with surprisingly little originality: Charlotte realizes war is not the romantic melodrama she expected, Greta cheats her way to the top and is ultimately betrayed by her vile Nazi lover, Viktor teams up with another Jewish refugee and joins the Polish resistance, and, four years after their initial separation, these characters mournfully come to the conclusion that war is bad. Whatever Generation War has to say about the inevitability and destruction of war, it could be truncated into a slogan on a picket sign. These adjacent storylines are haphazardly linked together, often cutting from one to the other with little attention to continuity and compositional fluidity (for example, graphic matches or sound bridges to interweave these plots are nowhere to be found), further emphasizing their outworn familiarity.
Watching Generation War, you can never quite forget its background as a made-for-TV miniseries: the kitschy historical set design, handheld cinematography, and crude special effects are proficient in a workmanlike way, though hardly verisimilar. For historical dramas to convince us of their alien setting is an extremely difficult accomplishment—a director must have a precise and meticulous command over every aspect of the film, from its visual manifestation to the soundtrack to the dialogue and performances. A filmmaker with the magisterial command of Mizoguchi or Kubrick might believably evoke such a historical setting, but Philipp Kadelbach cannot; too often, Generation War simply seems like a masquerade, lazily willing to let its Nazi costumes and interspersed archival footage do the historicizing. There are many reasons for this unconvincing diegesis, from Fabian Römer’s insipid musical score (practically a cut-and-paste of the rising strings and plaintive piano familiar from American Oscar bait) to the lifeless narration and phony Berlin sets—obviously shot on a soundstage and filled in with unconvincing computer imagery.
Apparently the film has generated a great deal of controversy in its home country (and elsewhere), reigniting a debate over Germany’s deep-rooted war guilt and how to adequately process it. Winner of the Deutscher Fernsehpreis for Best Multi-Part German TV Film of 2013, certain publications and historians defended Generation War as an opportunity to reassess the nation’s culpability, commending its unabashed portrayal of Wehrmacht soldiers murdering Jews (the first instance of such scenes on German television) and its portrayal of flawed individuals who come to realize how much they’ve been deluded by their politicians. Other commentators, however, have lambasted the film’s depiction of average Germans as brainwashed victims of a sadistic Third Reich—a clear distinction between guiltless civilians and barbarous Nazis which, in historical reality, was much hazier and difficult to demarcate. The miniseries’ premiere on Polish television also generated heated controversy, as commentators bristled at Generation War’s depiction of the Polish resistance as rabid anti-Semites, thus partially absolving “good Germans” who were simply led astray by the Nazis; Polish ambassadors at home and in Germany wrote articles denouncing the film’s “falsification of history,” and even the Polish ambassador in the United States wrote a letter to Music Box Films, the American distributor, to express concerns over its vilifying representation of the Polish underground army. In other words, while some critics and theorists have interpreted Generation War as a complex analysis of how essentially humane people could have been so cruelly misled by the Third Reich, others see it as a parade of self-pitying excuses for the war generation, ultimately arriving at a cowardly message: “We perpetrators,” in the acerbic words of the German critic Tobias Kaufmann, “didn’t have an easy time.”
It’s true that Generation War never comes close to an honest depiction of how entire populations may be duped by xenophobic hegemony, but that seems due to the movie’s generic clichés more than any attempt to avoid blame for past injustices. The depiction of Polish resistance fighters is indeed simplistic and false, and none of these characters are profound enough to merit any kind of complex interpretation; Generation War hardly has a political or insightful bone in its limp body, content to rehash familiar war-movie tropes while pretending to confront historical guilt in the process. This might seem to let the movie (partially) off the hook, since its timid characterizations don’t seem to intentionally exonerate all of World War II Germany; but turning the Holocaust into fodder for middlebrow hokum is inexcusable however you look at it (no matter how often it's been perpetrated). The complex process of homogenization and the horrifying actuality of Nazi death camps are conspicuous in their absence, whether due to a lack of ambition or willful self-delusion.
Generation War isn’t a complete waste: the plotting may be simplistic but it’s undeniably entertaining (which might be some viewers’ primary concern, considering the film’s 270-minute running time), and the sound design is immersive and meticulous (one of the film’s few technical achievements). Yet if these are the only compliments that can be applied to a historical war epic supposedly coming to terms with Germany’s Holocaust guilt, you know you’re in trouble. Admittedly, the cinematic war genre has often seemed simplistic and insensitive to me, ultimately resorting to contrived notions of heroism and villainy and turning unthinkable trauma into action-packed entertainment. Yet even among such a spotty repertoire, Generation War is especially contrived and falsified, obligatorily hashing out its storylines until it arrives at its lamebrained conclusion. Not every film dealing with Germany’s unsettling precedent of state-sanctioned evil has to assume the abrasive, confrontational form of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) or Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969); a compelling narrative might be made which also gets to the heart of such a barbarous devolution, as Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) partially achieves. Yet in order to be taken seriously, such a film at least has to attempt a believable historical context or complex character psychologies. For all of the controversy it’s provoked, Generation War might be most offensive in how eagerly it transmutes historical guilt into well-trodden generic drivel.