Sympathizing with Nazis is something the viewer is pushed to do in Generation War, a four-and-a-half hour German miniseries that was originally titled Our Mothers, Our Fathers.
The two-part cinematic epic brands itself as the German Band of Brothers, and it’s a fair comparison. The quality is HBO-ish in ways both good and bad. As for the good, director Philipp Kadelbach expertly weaves the tales of five characters as the protagonists move from landscape to landscape, battle to battle, tragedy to tragedy. Also, the battle sequences — especially those of close-quarter combat on the eastern front — are brutal, meticulous and immediate. They’ve got enough firepower to make you jump and enough bullet-in-the-belly agony to make you cringe. As for the negatives, pacing peters out here and there, especially in the first part (which runs a little over two hours). But if you stick with it, part II (which is even longer) pays off. Performances vary, and sometimes the characters look like little more than wartime cliché cut-outs.
Speaking of cringing, it’s hard not to notice that the Holocaust doesn’t hold a central place in the film. While there’s one lovely scene where many, many Jews are freed from boxcars on their way to a concentration camp, there’s no character who has to endure, or really see, the hell of the Holocaust. Thus, the viewer isn’t pushed to feel out, however inadequately, the immensity of the suffering of those millions systematically murdered by the Nazis. The lack of such a storyline or setting produces a weird feeling in the American viewer. It’s like wandering a military cemetery and not acknowledging the mountain of bodies stacked and rotting in the background.
Then again, it can be argued that Generation War isn’t really focused on the sins of the Nazis. Instead, the epic attempts to show who the young people of that generation were.
In doing so, it follows five friends, one of which is Jewish. His name is Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), and he’s in love with an aspiring singer named Greta (Katharina Schüttler). She starts an affair with an SS officer in hopes of helping Viktor flee the country, but she gets tangled up with the Gestapo when the officer promises to further her career. Then there’s the two soldiers: the brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm Winter (played by Volker Bruch and Tom Schilling, respectively). They fight in the Wehrmacht, believing, at first, in the hope of “final victory.” But that hope soon fades as what little glory battle holds quickly turns to endless slaughter. Lastly, there’s Charlotte (Miriam Stein). She’s in love with the elder Winter, and becomes a nurse to go to war with him. But love isn’t something she finds on the Russian front. Instead, there’s only wounded soldiers and the realization that Jews and Russians suffer just like Germans do.
With the exception of Viktor, all the characters end up with bad blood on their hands. Whether they make partisans walk minefields or hand over their Jewish friends to the SS, these characters are morally compromised, to say the least. Yet, they don’t appear as villains. If anything, Generation War depicts them as another set of victims of the Nazi regime. In the end, the viewer is confronted with a question of forgiveness: Do any of these Germans deserve it?
Generation War starts at the Lagoon Cinema on Friday. Note: You’ll have to get tickets for both part I and part II.