Generation War

Directed by Philipp Kadelbach. 279 minutes. 2 DVDs, May 6. German; English subtitles. $34.95.

Generation War begins and ends in a Berlin bar. Five German friends—bright, cheerful, optimistic, expecting to be home by Christmas—say farewell in 1941, on the eve of Operation Barbarossa. Four years later, the disillusioned survivors meet again, and an unasked question hovers in the air: “Why?”

Wilhelm is the narrator; he is already a lieutenant who leads from the front and sets his men an example. Younger brother Friedhelm, serving in Wilhelm’s platoon, uses irony to detach himself from the war’s realities and brutalities. Charlotte—“Charly”—is the baby of the group: a freshly certified army nurse. Greta is her counterpoint: a wannabe singer and worldly-wise, at least in her own estimation; her Jewish boyfriend Viktor and his family survive on the Reich’s fringe. These characters’ experiences and responses structure this television miniseries, which aired in Germany in 2013. But Generation War is more than that: it has become one of the defining pop-culture experiences shared by reunified Germany.

For the third and fourth postwar generations of Germany who watched— over seven-and-a-half million tuned in for the final episode—these tales might as well be from antiquity. Because of that, Generation War needs to be considered not just in itself, but for its larger implications.

The film’s production values are exemplary, the result of eight years and 150 sets recreating the ambience of the two sites that embody Germany’s World War II experience: the Russian front and wartime Berlin. From infantry weapons to women’s underwear, the props are accurate. The plot’s sustained pace facilitates the willing suspension of disbelief required for successful genre works. The main characters are well cast and well acted, with distinct personalities, which helps viewers track the many quick crosscuts and segues. The editing itself admirably conveys the manic balance between traumatic shock and everyday routine that defined, say, the German experience in Russia.

Some have criticized Viktor’s presence in the circle of friends at this stage of the Third Reich. A more significant criticism describes Generation War as airbrushing the Germans’ complicity as a people in the Reich’s crimes, even presenting them as merely another set of Hitler’s victims. That is easier said than proven. In this film, Nazis are not remote brutes; they are an everyday presence. Their criminal behavior is routine. What are the reactions from Germans? Awareness and indifference—and this is the point. None of the “Aryan Four,” for instance, says “No” to Nazi logic for any significant length of time. Wilhelm obeys an order to execute a Russian commissar. Charly betrays a Jewish woman from Ukraine working at her hospital. Friedhelm initiates using Russian civilians to clear an unmarked minefield. Greta, in Berlin, becomes a Gestapo officer’s sex toy—to secure exit documents for Viktor, certainly, but also to revive a moribund singing career.

And all this occurs in episode one!

Melodrama and manipulation? Perhaps; at times, almost certainly. But Generation War is better understood as the final stage of a historical process in Germany—which is why it has provoked such widespread, thoughtful discussion there. Its protagonists were teenagers when Hitler assumed power; they were conditioned, then co-opted, and ultimately corrupted by the Nazi regime and its ideology. Human nature being what it is, whatever is left of their private selves and values becomes a very slender reed to lean on during a total war under a totalitarian dictatorship. They are not consciously evil. But they unsettlingly demonstrate how disinformation, self-interest, duty, and compromise combined to create steep and slippery slopes that led Germans ever downward, without inspiring heroes and martyrs— or producing individuals able or even willing to say “No” for long. “Why?” Why indeed. Generation War suggests that perennial question may be fundamentally unanswerable.


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.