Generation War (miniseries from Germany, 2014)

I didn’t even realize that “Generation War”, by Phillip Kadelbach, had been a TV miniseries in Germany, and a the theatrical release by Music Box Films of the project certainly is challenging to get a commitment from the audience.  DVD and Instant play rental would have been a lot simpler.  I had seen the previews, which do not tell that the film is a 279-minute miniseries.  Today, I saw both Parts at Landmark E Street in downtown DC, in sequence, before a fairly substantial and, by appearances, diverse crowd.  Landmark charges two separate admissions, and unfortunately wastes some time by repeating the previews before the second half. The experience reminds me of going to big films with an Intermission: 'Gone with the Wind', 'The Ten Commandments', 'Doctor Zhivago' and 'War and Peace' all come time mind, as well as a Shakespeare’s 'Hamlet' from Columbia in 1996.

IMDB gives the three 90-minute episodes as 'Another Time', 'Another War', 'Another Land'. But the theatrical release is just 'Part I' and 'Part II', with no repetition of credits. The original title of the series in Germany had been Unsere Mutter, unsere Vater.

Of course, it is showing World War II from the viewpoint of young adult civilians living in Berlin in 1941 is the draw. I don’t know if any other film (even 'The Book Thief' [Nov. 17. 2013] achieves that aim as graphically as this film. 'The Wind Rises' (March 11) achieves some of this for Japan.

As the film opens, five friends gather at a family apartment in Berlin. They are two brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm Winter (Volker Bruch and Tom Schilling), singer Greta (Katharina Schuttler), Jewish tailor Viktor Goldstein (Ludwig Trepte), and Charlotte (Miriam Stein). Greta is Viktor’s girlfriend, and that already stirs things up.  An SS man shows up at the apartment and dresses them down form listening to swing music, although that visit leads to Greta’s career entertaining troops. The elder Winter looks forward to his son’s going into the Army, and he thinks that doing so will “make a man” out of the booking Friedhelm. Charlotte will become a nurse on the Eastern Front in Russia. The young adults think that the war will be over by Christmas.  They honestly believe that the world is theirs collectively for the taking, It’s shocking how intrusive the elders and police are in the homes of ordinary citizens. Viktor's father even rationalizes anti-Semitism as something to be lived with, and that will go away when the war is won.

The military training does recall my own days of Basic in 1968, such as the repetitions of 'I need some volunteers'. In a world like ours where people are expected to develop an individual moral compass, we would wonder how young adults would believe that the right thing to do is to conquer lands from other people for their own demographic future. But in their culture they were told what their values had to be. They had been told that the world had been taken away from their ancestors by 'Jews' and other 'inferiors' and they would have to take it back by force. Yet out of this one of the most authoritarian cultures in history (except perhaps for North Korea) developed. We often hear pundits say that individuals need to have causes bigger than themselves as individuals. Yet, it they don't have free thought, look at what can happen. There is a line in the film, 'This isn't just a war, it's a philosophy.' Or ideology.

As the war progresses, the characters get split up, and become casualties of various parts, and run into one another far too often for credibility.  The character making the most troubling transformation is Friedhelm, saved once with battlefield chest surgery, who in the end cannot give up the Nazi ideology he unexpectedly has embraced. He will have no life after the war. But Wilhelm actually deserts his troops, and Viktor turns out to be much more assertive when on the run (even escaping from a train header for Auschwitz) than one would expect.

The violence, against civilians as well as soldiers and often enough against women and even older children, is up front, relentless, and shocking.  We don’t see this in conventional Hollywood films about WWII. The physicality of the characters is impressive. You see officers in underwear with archaic stocking garters; curious is the lack of body hair of several male characters.

The music score is by Fabian Romer and contains a theme that resembles a melody Jake Heggie’s the opera 'Moby-Dick'. The film draws on a moral dilemma, on what should be expected of individuals how have only a group vision of the future, and see everything in terms of disciplining the individual and commandeering loyalty.

Authoritarian cultures do that. My own father used to say 'To obey is better than to sacrifice'. Wikipedia attribution link for picture from Russian campaign, here.