NEW YORK — Growing up as I did in a movie-loving Jewish home, no film rocked family conversations like Wolfgang Peterson’s 1981 war epic “Das Boot.” Like a depth charge spreading mayhem across seder tables, I listened to my elders debate whether “it was right” to give a film that sympathetically portrayed Germans in uniform the time of day.
“Das Boot” was palatable for most because it kept its focus inside the pressure cooker of a U-Boat. “Generation War” (“Our Mothers, Our Fathers” in German) is a four-and-a-half-hour attempt to elucidate how all aspects of German society could get swept up in support of the Third Reich.
This enormous film (which aired in three 90 minute segments on German television) could be retitled “Just Following Orders: The Movie,” but even that oversimplifies things. Focusing primarily on a group of five young happy Berliners, we watch, slowly, how war transforms them.
While certainly a group narrative, the central figure is Wilhelm, firstborn of a proud German family and a Wehrmacht Lieutenant with great promise. He’s already had some time at the front, but now he’s going back and bringing his younger brother Friedhelm.
Friedhelm has a philosopher’s streak and is opposed to the war on general principles. They are chummy with Charlotte, a wide-eyed patriot who has just signed up to be a nurse. Also there’s Greta, a young singer with aspirations to be the next Marlene Dietrich. Rounding it out is Greta’s boyfriend, Victor, the son of a tailor, a proud German whose father fought in the last war, and a Jew.
As far as the “race laws” are concerned, “Generation War” does a marvelous job of showing how a populace can disagree with something, but make no concentrated effort to do anything about it. For as many raging anti-Semites as you meet in this film, there are twice as many who just wish that the Reich’s attitude towards Jews would just subside.
No one, not even Wilhelm, is particularly gung-ho for war. But all seem to accept that it is a civic duty. Wars come, responsibility follows. Sensitive Friedhelm laces up his boots, but doesn’t go out of his way to volunteer for duty when dangerous assignments come. (This changes once he is attacked by fellow soldiers who pummel him for cowardice and his older brother is compelled to look the other way.)
The bulk of the film takes place on the Eastern front, where each character has his innocence stripped away in horrific ways. Charlotte’s first day in a wartime nurse is as gruesome as you could imagine. Indeed, each scene at the hospital comes with house of horror shrieks from dying soldiers duking it out against pacifying music over a wireless. (When things get truly chaotic, surgeons sometimes shrug and say “make the radio louder.”)
The numerous battle scenes that Wilhelm and Friedhelm witness lead to a strange swap of personas. Friedhelm’s depression turns to nihilism, which unexpectedly, leads him to become one of the sharpest soldiers in the battalion. Wilhelm, on the other hand, gets rocked by shelling and finds himself groggy by a peaceful cottage near a lake. One of the Reich’s most reliable soldiers soon finds himself a deserter.
Back in Berlin, Greta’s career as a singer takes off when she shacks up with a high ranking member of the Gestapo. She also has other aims – he’s the only one who can secure safe passage to Marseilles for her true love Viktor. Viktor reluctantly takes the papers, but discovers he’s double-crossed. We next see him in pinstripes to Auschwitz.
If “Generation War” has anything to it, though, it’s a ceaseless plot engine. Viktor soon finds himself off that train and, next thing you know it, working with Polish partisans. Well, “working with” is overstating it. Their hatred of Jews is second only to hatred of Nazis, but Viktor keeps his identity secret and his German language skills are an asset.
The five characters continue to bump into one another in admittedly far-fetched ways. Greta makes a tour of the Eastern front, injuries get people to Charlotte’s hospital. What the film does well, though, is let you track the characters’ psychological journey by continuing to reference the group’s final night in Berlin. (A photo each person keeps on them is a bit of a blunt tool, but it gets the job done.)
The film, directed by Phillip Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, moves at a brisk pace serving up ample portions of food for thought, and has more than its share of insightful moments. “This isn’t a normal war,” a sympathetic commanding officer says to Wilhelm, informed he must execute Red Army prisoners. “This is a philosophy.”
Interestingly, we never hear the voice of the Fuhrer until the very end. After four relentless hours in which the great leader of the Thousand Year Reich’s name is invoked, he finally comes in – shouting – over the airwaves of the ubiquitous hospital radio. He’s unceremoniously switched off as the doctors and nurses bug out and flee for their lives.
Similarly, we only see (and never even hear) an American until one of the film’s last scenes, one which witnesses the absurdity of the “De-Nazifaction” process that spits in the eye of a typical movies’ “comeuppance clause.”
All of the young actors are top notch, particularly young Miriam Stein as Charlotte. Bearing a physical resemblance to American actress Greta Gerwig, Stein really nails the wide-eyed young patriot led by the hand to “help the Fatherland” who slowly realizes the ills of power structure around her. In time she becomes an activist, preventing soldiers from getting fully healed to prevent their return to the Front, for the good of all.
She also sticks her neck out to help her Ukrainian aide, who quickly recognizes that when the Red Army comes she will be killed as a collaborator. This humanism is a very specific act of penitence – at the beginning of the film she ratted out another assistant named Lilja when she discovered she was Jewish. She’s regretted it ever since.
Therein lies the difficulty of watching “Generation War,” particularly as a Jew. Can we forgive Charlotte for turning Lilja over to the SS? Should we forgive her? Is she even asking for forgiveness? What purpose does it serve to create a sympathetic face amidst the cogs of Nazi atrocities. Or has enough time passed that we must do this to hope to survive as a species?
While “Generation War” is propulsive and determined to stay juicy (there’s plenty of shooting and schtupping) it offers some surprising restraint when it comes to telling you how exactly to feel. By the end of the picture, the surviving characters are numb and so, to an extent, are we in the audience.
“Generation War” is playing for two weeks at New York’s Film Forum starting January 15. Other cities and a more natural DVD/Streaming roll-out to follow.