Generation War: Film Review

Involving, if sometimes dubious, attempt to soften history's view of those who fought Hitler's war.

Philipp Kadelbach's long-form drama follows five young German friends over the course of WWII.

Hugely successful as a TV miniseries in its native Germany, Philipp Kadelbach's Generation War centers on five close friends whose diverging and reconnecting paths give each a very different experience of the Second World War. Presented there with a title that translates Our Mothers, Our Fathers, the project aims to humanize a generation mostly unheard from since the war's end, envisioning how decent people participated in a campaign they realized was doomed long before the Third Reich fell. Well-made and at least partly successful in dramatic terms, the film should draw attention in art house bookings, where it has been broken into two feature-length chapters; though its perspective will prove over-forgiving for many non-Germans, interest in a video release should be respectable.

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The film has drawn protests in Poland over its depiction of a band of Polish resistance fighters who are as disgusted by Jews as their enemies are. This outrage has been presented as condemnation of German filmmakers seeking to spread Holocaust guilt around. But Wladyslaw Pasikowski's recent Aftermath, a homegrown film inspired by true stories of Polish anti-Semitic atrocities, was greeted with similar complaints, suggesting that critics' real interest is in whitewashing history, pretending violence against Jews began and ended in Germany.

As for the quintet of friends at the heart of this story, none emerges from the war wholly innocent, but none participates directly in the Nazis' greatest crimes. (In fact, though one sequence shows us a train full of Jews unwittingly headed toward their deaths, the film never makes its way to a concentration camp.) The protagonists even get a small inoculation against our decades-later judgment: The four Aryans among them can honestly make the claim, "One of my best friends is a Jew."

That Jew, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), is a young tailor whose father refuses to believe, even as he's sewing a yellow star on his coat, that his fellow Germans will really forget his loyalty to the nation. Viktor is in a relationship with Greta (Katharina Schuttler), a barmaid who aspires to be the next Marlene Dietrich. Wholesome, cheerful Charly (Miriam Stein, who could play Emma Watson's sister some time) is a nurse about to begin duty at a field hospital near the Russian front; she secretly loves Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), a lieutenant headed off to fight nearby, where he'll be accompanied by his bookish, moral brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling). Wilhelm loves Charly too, but neither admits it on the last night the friends spend together in Berlin -- dancing to forbidden jazz recorded by African-Americans, assuring each other on this June evening that the war will be won in time for a Christmas reunion.

That's not to be, of course. Wilhelm serves as occasional narrator from the front, first describing the "euphoria of speed" with which his troops advance toward Moscow but, as months pass and setbacks arise, chronicling a growing pessimism. Friedhelm serves under his brother. Stefan Kolditz's script gives both soldiers a chance to register horror at the brutality of their superiors -- they try to save a civilian child, only to see a sadistic officer shoot her point blank -- but atrocities affect them in very different ways. In both cases, the film offers psychologically convincing scenarios in which fundamentally decent men find themselves committing damnable crimes.

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Some of the characters' sins begin as compromises we might identify with, as when Greta starts sleeping with a Gestapo officer (Mark Waschke) in order to secure papers allowing Viktor safe passage out of Germany. (Unsurprisingly, Viktor doesn't get off that easily.) Others are heartbreaking capitulations to the racist mores of the day. But each character's path takes him places we don't expect.

These ever-more-twisty journeys manage to keep Generation War involving for nearly five hours straight. Kadelbach's battle scenes are capably staged and sometimes exciting, but they're never as intense as the best of their American counterparts. For melodrama, however, the film gives Hollywood a run for its money. These five characters bump into each other in increasingly unlikely ways; in the final hour or two, the coincidences become real howlers -- the Eastern Front comes to seem like a very small place indeed.

All five actors make these convolutions credible, which isn't quite to say that the film itself rings true. At its heart, Generation War argues that its heroes' self-sacrifice deserves some respect, despite being made in support of a hideous cause. It's easy enough to understand that sentiment taking root with the baffled, guilt-plagued grandchildren of men and women who rarely if ever spoke up about their experiences in Nazi Germany. For the rest of the world, this particular effort at sense-making isn't always easy to swallow.

Production Company: teamWorx Produktion
Cast: Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling, Katharina Schuttler, Ludwig Trepte, Miriam Stein, Mark Waschke
Director: Philipp Kadelbach
Screenwriter: Stefan Kolditz
Producer: Nico Hofmann
Director of photography: David Slama
Production designer: Thomas Stammer
Music: Fabian Romer
Costume designer: Wiebke Kratz
Editor: Bernd Schlegel
No rating, 279 minutes