Film Review: Generation War

German TV mini-series that follows five young German friends catapulted into the insanity and unconscionable violence of World War II also works handsomely as a big-screen anti-war epic. Both a must-see primer for Germany’s younger generation and

Yes, at 279 minutes, director Philipp Kadelbach and writer Stefan Kolditz’s Generation War is a punishing, loud and sometimes exhausting anti-war sprawl with a high rat-a-tat quotient (guns and explosives have their say here). But the filmmakers allow plenty of time to bring to life (death aside) a number of engaging young characters flailing in the nightmarish mess Hitler orchestrated with so much German help.

Mercifully shown in two parts, the film also rates high in performances and production value. Younger audiences not so familiar with the horrors enacted by the Nazis and enabled by the German population should have their socks knocked off by the consequences of the evil and insanity on view; older audiences might kick off their heels and settle in for another first-class ride into an ugly period of history.

Kolditz’s story, on which he labored for eight years, covers the years 1941 to 1945 and focuses on the fates of a tightly knit group of five Berlin childhood friends. They are first seen joyfully convened at a gathering in the summer of 1941 to cheer two brothers among them—the older Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and his more sensitive sibling Friedhelm (Tom Schilling)—who are off to be Wehrmacht soldiers in the drive east to Moscow.

Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) is the only Jew in this clique. He and Greta (Katharina Schüttler), the aspiring chanteuse of the group, are in love. Victor works as a tailor with his father and is completing a dress for her audition.
Not to be left out of the love and war games is sweet, bright-eyed Charlotte (Miriam Stein), who just got her nurse’s stripes and who, too, will be joining the German cause. A shy sort, she quietly carries a torch for Wilhelm.

While unease grows among Viktor and his parents as the Nazis tighten the vise around the Jewish population (a curfew is but one omen), his friends are oblivious to the horrors that await. Optimism and even some giddiness pervade their celebration as they vow to reunite back in Berlin the next Christmas. A photo of the five smiling faces captures the mood. The five will carry copies of this photo throughout their ordeals. It reappears periodically to drive home the tragic irony of so much innocence and blinding ignorance behind the hell to follow.

Viewers young and old already know how the war ends and how the Jews fared. Many will also be reminded to what degree the German forces were no match for the Russians and the horrid weather that required the humiliating retreat from the Eastern Front and cost so many millions of lives.

Kadelbach, his crew, special effects, realistic locations and some occasional archival material bring the many violent battle scenes to life. But it’s the interwoven stories of the five friends that sustain interest across over four-and-a-half hours. That Christmas ’41 reunion, of course, is out of the question but suspense emanates from who might be the ones who die, survive, get morally comprised, endure unimaginable horrors, commit unimaginable acts.

Brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm both evolve as members of the same battalion advancing east as disillusionment, cynicism and suffering grow. A retreat into the Ukraine is especially shocking. Meanwhile in Berlin, Greta takes on married Nazi Dorn (Mark Waschke) as a lover in order to get Viktor the papers he needs to escape Germany. Greta eventually becomes a well-known singer who is shipped off to entertain the troops in the east. Victor is double-crossed but manages his own escape as a captive in Poland, also not a good place for Jews to be.

Charlotte, who works as a nurse at field hospitals on the Eastern Front where she helps treat the wounded, experiences intrigue and romance, the former with co-worker Lilja (Christiane Paul), who is hiding her Jewish identity, and the latter with Dr. Jahn (Götz Schuber), a hospital doctor.

Generation War is awash with many other ancillary characters (sadistic Nazis, anti-Semitic Polish partisans, et. al), plot twists and coincidences—a few forced—that have some of the five cross paths in battle zones and one very satisfying and wise coincidence that ends the film.

Who will live and who will die does drive the long narrative, but the many fighting scenes may bring on a little battle fatigue. And films like Downfall, Schindler’s List and Lore and many documentaries provide more insight into German guilt and behavior. Friedhelm, the timid-turned-brutal brother, observes that “the war brings out the worst in all of us,” but the question of “why” continues to nag.