Generation War is a three-part German television production that concerns the life of five friends caught up in events from 1941-45. Clocking in at nearly five hours, the production is vast in scope, covering events on the Russian front, the forests of Poland, and the streets of Berlin. Handsomely shot and boasting fine performances from its cast, the series benefits from visceral action sequences, squirm-inducing moments of hospital gore and episodes of breathtaking cruelty.
This is, after all, a series about World War II, arguably the darkest chapter of humanity’s 20th-century existence. Because it is told from a German perspective, though, it avoids some of the more tiresome clichés found in American dramas of the same type.
We first meet the five friends in Berlin in 1941, shortly before brothers Friedhelm and Wilhelm are due to be shipped to the Eastern Front. At this early stage, the friends are shown as believing the propaganda they have been fed: the Germans will be invading Russia as liberators and will be warmly welcomed by the local populace (sound familiar?). The war, everyone is sure, will be over by Christmas. The Fuhrer said so!
Besides the brothers, the group includes Charlotte, who has volunteered to be a nurse behind the front lines; Greta, a pretty would-be singer/film star; and Viktor, a young Jewish tailor who works for his father. Greta and Viktor are a couple, while demure Charlotte and stiff-upper-lippish Wilhelm struggle with a mutual, unspoken affection. Younger brother Friedhelm, meanwhile, must make do with his books and his poetry: he is far from being suitable soldier material, and big brother Wilhelm has been charged by their mother with the task of bringing him home safely.
Already, then, viewers experience something markedly different from such Hollywood crap as Inglorious Basterds or countless John Wayne war movies: the revolutionary notion that Germans were not all the same, a faceless monolithic collection of ruthless, sadistic automatons. Rather, Wilhelm and the others are ordinary German youths struggling to make sense of what they have been told. Even the Jewish Viktor is a proud German patriot at first—his father fought in the First World War—and it is only gradually that he becomes disillusioned with what is happening to his nation.
Days pass, then weeks and eventually years, and the series tracks the various characters as they undergo a collective metamorphosis from idealistic youth to haunted, sometimes hunted, adults. Inevitably, the brutalities of war take their toll, most directly on Wilhelm and Friedhelm, whose experiences fighting in Russia transmute them in markedly different but equally tragic ways.
Charlotte, serving as a nurse as the casualties come pouring in, must confront her own failings, not always successfully. Greta attempts to navigate the home front, struggling to protect her lover Viktor, and embarking on a series of compromises which grow increasingly dire as time goes on. Viktor himself is caught in a desperate struggle to survive, one which see him facing death with every step. By the end of the war, with the Russians and the Americans carving up the territory, everyone has changed markedly.
The series, as mentioned above, is well shot, with a muted color palette well suited to the gravity of the material, and skillfully inserted stock footage to lend a gritty documentary feel. Large-scale battles are absent, but are made up for with well-choreographed small-scale battles. (One firefight in the second episode is particularly gripping.) There are some plot contrivances that are not entirely convincing, particularly in the latter half of the final episode, as the writers struggle to shepherd their main characters together, but such moments are forgiven easily enough given the seamless way that the storylines progress most of the time.
Extra features on the two-disc set center on a 20-minute panel discussion with the screenwriters and producer of the series, which touches upon topics as diverse as technical difficulties with the weather, the initial impulse behind the project’s creation, and how the series has been received in other countries. A 12-page booklet is also included, containing a number of interesting essays on the genesis of the series and its impact when aired in Germany in 2013. (Inevitably, some critics condemned the series as an attempt to “whitewash” ordinary Germans’ role in the war and the Holocaust, apparently preferring the old faceless-German-monolith mode of storytelling.)
Generation War is a powerful piece of filmmaking and something that be viewed by anyone with even a passing interest in World War II and/or its presentation in the movies. With outstanding performances by its young cast, and a screenplay that isn’t afraid to present ambivalence and ambiguity, it works equally well as a piece of compelling storytelling and as an antidote to simpleminded presentations of heroes and villains.
Maybe this will make some viewers uncomfortable. Maybe it will offend some people. Quite possibly, it will make some people reconsider their preconceptions. That’s fine. Much of the time, that’s what good art does.