Five German youths toast before WWII destroys their lives in "Generation War." Credit: Music Box Films
‘Generation War’ Director: Phillipp Kadelbach Stars: Volker Bruch, Miriam Stein Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
The German people who lived under Nazi rule have been, by and large, reluctant to discuss how they lived under Nazi rule. On one hand it’s understandable: Shame hardly comes deeper. On the other, a frank and honest discussion of how the population gave into a charismatic, genocidal leader would be profoundly helpful in preventing such future tragedies. Alas, that has never been the case. Even the art that came from Germany immediately after WWII — including the grim “rubble film” “The Murderers Are Among Us,” about an ex-soldier who discovers his neighbor is a former captain — tends to shift the blame, lifting responsibility from regular people to a host of mere bad eggs.
Distressingly, the same thing happens in “Generation War,” a German miniseries that last year proved a significant hit and a hot point for tough conversations. Those conversations aren’t had in the film itself. In four-and-a-half hours, it — like last year's "The Book Thief" — never raises the tough questions, and merely continues the self-deceiving lie that the populace was simply run over by a bunch of mustache-twirling jerks you would see out of a silly Hollywood movie — or on bad television.
Admittedly, and for what little it’s worth, “Generation War” is trashily watchable. Like the seminal (and slightly, but only slightly, more respectable) 1970s miniseries “Holocaust,” which starred young Meryl Streep and James Woods, it tracks a cadre of people on diverse paths so as to cover as much ground as possible. Here, our leads are five young German friends. Wilhlem (Volker Bruch), our narrator, is a Nazi youth excited to fight for his country. Charlotte (Miriam Stein) is even more thrilled to be a nurse on the front lines. The others are less gaga. Greta (Katharina Schuttler) is oblivious to war, wanting to be the next Marlene Dietrich. Her boyfriend, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), is a Jew. Nice Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) is ready to fight, but not happily. Charlotte also secretly loves Wilhelm, which awww.
That two of our heroes are passionate (or at least thoughtless) nationalists promises a deeper, perhaps unprecedentedly honest look at how polluted patriotism gripped and perverted a desperate populace. But that never comes. Wilhelm and Charlotte are disillusioned long before the intermission, chiefly because they meet people who rock true evil. One commandant is introduced calmly shooting a Jewish girl in the back of the head. We know he’ll get his, and we will cheer when he does. But it’s a reassuring falsehood: We are trained as viewers to focus all our hatred on him while forgiving our lead characters, who are portrayed as mere pawns.
That the only people we ever see the Germans fighting are the Stalin-led Russians is further reassurance. If our protagonists had to fight the Allies, much less Americans, that might make us dislike them. We can’t dislike them; we have to always be on their side, always feel that they were innocents simply led into a bad situation. The narrative even engineers for Viktor, who escapes from a train en route to a concentration camp, to wind up fighting with Polish resistance fighters — who turn out to hate Jews even more than the Nazis. This might have been true, but, as with using Russians, the choice to focus on anti-Semitic resistance fighters is telling. They’re there to subtly make our German characters more sympathetic. If one were to take “Generation War” as gospel, we’d come away believing that Germany fell to Nazi rule because the Nazis were nothing more than a bunch of nasty bullies. And that doesn’t help anybody.