I was sitting at my kitchen table enjoying a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles while watching Generation War — a three-episode German miniseries, re-edited into two feature-length parts for U.S. distribution — when I was startled by the appearance of an unexpected rape scene. It was an uncomfortable moment — a representation of the atrocities of war — that was compounded by the relative ease and comfort with which I was digesting it. I know nothing of war, of helplessness, of economic uncertainty (well, I am a broke, post-grad twenty-something, but I don’t think that counts). Chocolate cereal and VOD services are just a few of the shameless luxuries gifted me by previous generations, who faced hardship and repeated upheaval so that I could order pizza naked in bed.
But it hasn’t always been like this; there have been generations mired by the decisions of their forefathers. Such was the case for Germans in the 1930s, who suffered economic depression and instability as a result of their elders’ participation in World War I. The German title of Generation War is Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter or Our Mothers, Our Fathers, which is far superior. The film’s scope is predictably large, covering nearly the entire duration of the war in Europe while focusing on a group of five friends who occupy various places in society and pursue numerous roles in the war effort. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) are brothers serving in the same company marching towards Moscow. Charlotte (Miriam Stein), Wilhelm’s love, joins the Red Cross as a nurse serving in the hospitals along the front. The remaining two in the group are Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), a Jewish tailor who narrowly avoids the concentration camps to join the Polish resistance, and his girlfriend Greta (Katharina Schüttler), an aspiring singer whose journey echoes the rise and fall of the Third Reich as a whole.
The miniseries should be of particular interest to English-speaking audiences (especially Americans) who have a tendency to forget or ignore that World War II was, in fact, a global conflict that affected over thirty nations. The war existed before America’s involvement, and significant battles and campaigns occurred without U.S. presence. America is only mentioned a handful of times during the film, and only one American character appears within the entire narrative: a high-ranking officer whose nationality is only discernible by his haircut and the letters visible on his lapel — and he doesn’t have any lines. Instead the film focuses on the Germans’ clashes on the Russian front and with the Polish partisans.
Most of Generation War’s 279-minute runtime consists of familiar, archetypal storylines packaged together (perhaps too) neatly; but the beautiful set pieces and character explorations keep the film watchable. As the outcome of the war becomes inevitable, several characters express a similar sentiment: that when they left their civilian lives for the war effort, they were billed as heroes; but now the world is calling them monsters. Indeed, at the start of the film, the characters seem full of a passionate (if not naïve) Manichean sense of right and wrong. Yet by war’s end, each of the five protagonists has committed at least one damnable act, whether it be desertion, betrayal, or murder. But the portrayals of Wilhelm, Friedhelm, Charlotte, Greta and, Viktor are mostly sympathetic, undercutting the blame on the German nation for their war crimes by shifting it to a German “other” responsible for those acts. This is more unsettling, given that the film woefully ignores the Holocaust, instead sending its Jewish character to join up with Polish rebels. While the addition of the “Polish partisans” plot broadened my own understanding of the European conflict, the film’s avoidance of the Holocaust is troublesome. Germany has a complicated, sensitive history, and an honest film fully detailing it would be a difficult but important watch. Generation War is a step in that direction, but it is not yet the definitive chronicle of the war that it wants to be.