The Hollywood model for war movies is well known to us; certainly my generation was raised on Sunday afternoon fare of The Great Escape, Guns of Navarone, and Where Eagles Dare. These are all great films, but do they capture any truth of the experience? How far can any film capture the experience of war?
Well, Generation War does a great job with the emotions in particular. Other WWII movies may have the action sequences to amaze, but this three-part German drama concentrates on the feelings of five friends who meet up in Berlin in 1941, on the night before three of them depart for the Eastern front. Charlotte will become a nurse. Brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm are soldiers. Staying in Berlin are lovers Greta and Viktor. She’s a singer with intentions to be the next Marlene Dietrich, and a high-ranking Nazi boyfriend on the side. He’s a Jewish tailor.
So we all already know this isn’t going to end well, but that’s not the point. The set-up reminded me of a disaster movie; if the initial scene presents you with five friends set in a time frame where terrible things are about to happen then the whole issue becomes – who is going to survive? The script made the most of this, and played well with expectations; at different points in the narrative we saw all the characters threatened. That overriding desire to find out who is going to meet up back in Berlin at the end of war gripped me, and brought with it a great sadness, particularly for the two brothers on the Eastern front who both gave brilliant performances.
Wilhelm (played by Volker Bruch) is a Wehrmacht Officer, full of self-righteous belief, and has some idea of attempting to protect his younger brother from the worst excesses of the war. Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) reads poetry and sees the war as pointless. His lack of Nazi ideals make him a scapegoat in his unit and leads him into conflict with the higher ranks. His sensitive soul can’t last long in such conditions – the brothers advance and then retreat, and fight at the Battle of Kursk. The transformation from Nazi invincibility to shame at their own blinkered brutality is brilliantly done, and very moving.
Greta and Viktor’s storylines struggle more under the weight of meaning. Greta attempts to manipulate the situation to her best advantage, and to help Viktor in the process, but there is no winning against the system. Viktor is sent east to a concentration camp, but there the story takes an unexpected turn. Greta’s relationship with the rather more sketchily drawn Nazi official was, for me, the least rewarding element. At times her naivete in thinking she was in any way controlling the situation stretched my patience, but the performance was strong enough to avoid also stretching credulity.
By the end of the third episode we return to Berlin and learn who has survived. To be honest, at this point I could easily have watched more. It seemed to me that although the friends’ experiences of war were at a close there was still so much ground to cover at an emotional level.
German soldiers returning from the Russian front with shame to face the destruction of their homeland is a subject that gets handled with a lot of dignity in 2003’s German film The Miracle of Bern. There football becomes the only viable outlet of national pride in post-war Germany, and its well worth a watch. Back with Generation War, I could easily have watched these excellently drawn characters tackle the problems of rebuilding their lives and identities. There is so much more to say on the subject than simply some closing credits suggesting how long everyone lived.
Generation War stirred up controversy, and I can see why; the higher up the party structure you go, the less rounded the characters become. Is it really the case that the ordinary people were at the mercy of those in power? Perhaps that’s impossible to answer, and is one of those subjects that films on the subject of World War Two will never be able to tackle realistically to anyone’s satisfaction. But in terms of placing us within that terrible situation and asking us to imagine what choices we would have made, Generation War is a fine piece of film-making, and deserves to be watched alongside the Hollywood classics – if only for the fresh perspective it throws on a well-worn subject.
Generation War is out on DVD and Blu-Ray now.
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