Home Video Hovel: Generation War, by Sarah Brinks
They say there are two sides to every story. That idiom holds true for World War II. Generation War is not the first piece of cinema to tell the story of the war from the German perspective but it is one of the most successful that I have seen. Generation War is a three-part mini-series that tells the story of five German friends from 1941- 1945. What I like the most about Generation War is that it never fully condemns or excuses the actions or choices of the five protagonists or those of the German people as a whole during World War II. The best choice the series makes is to stay focused on our five protagonists. With the exception of a few secondary characters whose actions effect our protagonists we are always with at least one of the five. The choice to not show us Hitler, the death camps, or the American front was a strong choice. It does leave out a big section of the World War II story, but that was not the story the series was attempting to tell.
Part one begins with the five friends meeting up at a pub to see each other one last time before three of them leave for war on the Russian front. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and Friedhelm Winter (Tom Schilling) are brothers heading out to the front together. Wilhelm is clearly the leader and their fathers favorite. Friedhelm is much more cerebral and clearly their mothers favorite. Charlotte (Miriam Stein) just got her nurse’s license and is heading to the front to serve in the hospital. Greta (Katharina Schüttler) is the local beauty and Viktor’s lover. Viktor Goldstein (Ludwig Trepte) is a Jewish tailor. They have a wonderful night together, singing, dancing, and drinking. They take a picture together and agree that they will all meet back in Berlin by Christmas when the war is over. This is in 1941. For the rest of the series we see how the war affects each one of them and changes who they are.
Generation War has been referred to as the “German Band of Brothers.” This is a fair comparison in tone and subject matter. However, the story Generation War tells is far less militarily focused. It was filmed in Germany, Lithuania, and Latvia and took eight years to make. One thing that stuck out was the way places looked legitimately destroyed. The cities that the Winter bothers moved through looked devastated. Their unit was a part of the battle of Kursk, which was the largest German tank battle in World War II and the sets looked legitimately like they had been pulverized by tanks. It is impressive on such a large scale. They also show some historical footage that helps set the stage for the action in the story.
It is always a little hard to judge acting when it is in a foreign language but all the actors in the film were very good, especially the five we follow most closely. Bruch and Schilling who play the Winter brothers are real stand outs. They have the most screen time and have the biggest character shifts in the story, which they handle with mastered grace. Wilhelm narrates the series, orienting you to place and time and keeping you in tune with the attitude of the soldiers in his unit. The narration is sparingly used and I found it helpful rather then irritating as narration often can be. Each of the characters goes through a big change throughout the story. The series takes its time and each change is subtle and believable. It is that kind of successful writing and storytelling that makes Generation War so authentic.
The action scenes in the film are suspenseful. Clearly they took some notes out the Band of Brothers playbook. There are some battle scenes that are very reminiscent of scenes in Band of Brothers in the best possible way, specifically the episodes “Day of Days” and “Bastogne.” They keep you oriented with the soldiers so you understand where they are and what they are doing. Also the violence in the film is handled well. It isn’t shied away from but it isn’t stylized either. The hospital scenes often show the horror of war without feeling intentionally gruesome. As someone who can be very squeamish about blood and gore I appreciated the “matter of fact” approach to gore in Generation War.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, Generation War neither condemns nor excuses the characters in the series or Germany as a whole. It was a horrible war that took a lot of lives, but not every German who fought in the war was a Nazi maniac bent of ridding the world of non-Aryans. It is important to remember that. As Wilhelm says towards the end of the series, “In the beginning of a war you fight for your country. When that goes away you fight for your comrades, who you can’t let down.” The five characters start the war in their early twenties full of national pride and faith in Germany’s strength. At first I was very suspect of the fact that one of the five was Jewish. It seemed too convenient. Viktor’s story and his relationship to the others is very important and moves some of them to take extreme actions in order to help him. The anti-Semitic beliefs of some people are not glossed over though, you see some people do really horrible things to the Jews because they believe in Hitler’s campaign. Overall I think the Jewish aspect of the film is handle delicately but honestly. The filmmakers were not hiding the horrible truth about what happened to millions of Jewish people in the war so it was a part of, but not the only focus of, the story. The other main characters all have to make some really tough choices and do some really terrible things but they do them to survive and because they have to follow orders. There are some real monsters in the film too and they are not dismissed as the exception. There was a lot of hate at that time and it is portrayed as a fact, not an excuse.
No series is perfect. There is a section about the Polish underground that I never fully understood, but I think that is mostly due to my lack of knowledge about the political relationship between Poland and Germany during World War II. Generation War has also been criticized as portraying the German people as though they were “duped” by Hitler and the Nazis. I didn’t get that feeling from the film, but I am also watching it from an American perspective, which I’m certain tints my opinion. On that subject, it took a while during the first episode for me to mentally disconnect my gut reaction to seeing the German uniform on our protagonists. Year and years of watching World War II films from the American and European prospective (not to mention Indiana Jones) have trained me to instantly react negatively to anyone dressed like a Nazi. Whether that was intentional or not on the part of the filmmakers, it was quite effective.
I think the fact that this series exists is important. It is good to see the German side of the story. There were good and bad people who fought for the Nazis and there were good and bad people who fought for the Allies. War is a terrible thing, but we should learn from them and fight to keep history from repeating itself, I think that is the overall message of Generation War.
Generation War is in German and the subtitles are easy to read and cards keep you oriented to time and place. The series runs about four hours and forty minutes. The Blu-ray two-disc set comes with a 12 page booklet with movie stills, producer notes, and an essay by Sara Hall. It also has a special feature of a master class panel with the creators of the series. It is a beautiful and moving series that anyone interested in World War II or good story telling will enjoy.