Guest Movie Review: Generation War

The German TV miniseries Generation War, later released theatrically, is a tough slog of a movie that deals with the bloodiest event in modern history: Germany’s invasion of Russia and the ensuing savagery, through the eyes of five young Germans.

Originally screened on German television as a miniseries in 2013 as unsere Muetter, unsere Vaeter (“Our Mothers, Our Fathers”), it has since been screened in several countries. In Germany, 7 million people watched it, but it has generated some controversy, particularly in Poland because of its depiction of Polish anti-Semitism.

I first heard about the movie from one of my younger sisters, who has spent most of her life in Germany. (She and my youngest sister form a sort of “German sleeper cell” at holiday gatherings of our otherwise Irish family.) My sister thought that this film was an antidote to the standard Hollywood treatment of the war.

In January, the film was released in various U.S. cities, where it received a decidedly mixed critical reception. I went to see it at the Film Forum in Manhattan, where the 6-hour movie was shown in two parts. I watched part 1 on a Sunday, and returned the following Friday to watch the conclusion, walking in during the “intermission” to find a vacant seat (of which there were plenty!).

We first meet our five protagonists in a bar in Berlin shortly after the start of the invasion, in summer 1941. There are two brothers, Wilhelm (a dutiful army officer and the narrator of the story) and Friedhelm, a conscientious soldier who is skeptical of the war; Charlotte (improbably shortened to “Charly”); and two lovers: Viktor, a Jewish German, and Greta, an aspiring singer. The brothers go off to war in Russia, with Charly following behind as a nurse assigned to a field hospital, while Viktor and Greta stay in Berlin, although the situation quickly becomes desperate for Viktor and his family.

The fates of the five characters follow a number of twists and turns as they are thrown into the turmoil of an enormous conflict. All of the characters confront difficult moral choices. On the front, Wilhelm and Friedhelm quickly discover the gruesome manner in which the German army prosecutes the war, and each does horrific things while carrying out his “duty.” Charly, the most sympathetic character, who believes that as a nurse she is serving her country, informs on an associate who she finds out is Jewish. Greta has an affair with a handsome Gestapo officer, in part to protect Viktor but also to further her career. Viktor must disown his Jewish and German heritage in order to survive while on the run.

Critics have pointed out many flaws in the series. The series frequently switches from intense combat set pieces to melodrama and back again, and the audience at my screenings laughed out loud at some of the more ridiculous plot twists. There are too many convenient coincidences in the plot. We are made to believe that key characters have died at various points during the story, often more than once, and there are more than a few last-minute reprieves.

More seriously, many non-German critics have noticed that, as has become fashionable in German representations of the war, many Germans depicted in the film appear to be victims of the war. This causes great offense in countries that were true victims of German aggression.

When I went to see the movie there was a group of Polish protesters outside the cinema, who were demonstrating against the portrayal of anti-Semitic Polish characters by the film-makers. Although it is well known that many people in the occupied countries were violently anti-Semitic long before the Germans arrived, the movie returns to this theme again and again, and belabors the point, showing the anti-Semitism of Polish farmers and resistance fighters in several scenes.

In contrast, a critic for the Chicago Tribune noted a scene in which Wehrmacht soldiers berate one of their own for making anti-Semitic comments, which seemed like an odd choice for the filmmakers to make. The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who described the movie as “a queasy mix of realism and nostalgia,” took particular issue with the omission of the Nazi death camps.

However, despite these various problems, this series is absorbing and effective, and often very moving. Its depiction of the evils of totalitarian government is vivid and realistic. By all accounts it triggered significant discussion when it was broadcast in Germany, and after the movie I found myself reflecting again and again on some of the most harrowing scenes.

On balance, I think Generation War is therefore worth watching; it is a thought-provoking roller coaster of a movie, with an epic sweep. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a compelling story, with great acting and a different view of the Second World War.

3 responses to “Guest Movie Review: Generation War”

  1. yjdtymtsdm,sm

    Are u related to the great NY painter Phillip Taaffe?
    I’ve liked paintings for as long as I can remember (seeing Taaffe’s work at the Carnegie when Jack and I were in college was a revelation), but as I mature, painting -or Fine Art- has become a clear frontrunning preference over cinema.

  2. Patrick

    I have not come across Phillip Taaffe before, but it is possible that we are related somewhere along the line. I will ask my father, who likes to research the family tree. Taaffe is an Irish name. Most Taaffes seem to come from County Louth.

  3. yjdtymtsdm,sm

    Taaffee is Irish. huh. learn something new. I always assume the “aa” points to Copenhagen area. probably a leftover prejudice from kierkegaard.

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.