Generation War originally came out two years ago as a three-part German television miniseries, and I only found out about it recently. It has been described as a German Band of Brothers, but that misses some of the nuance. The story follows a group of five childhood friends from 1941 until the defeat of Germany in 1945. The five represent a cross-section of German experiences, and include two soldiers (brothers), a singer, a nursing student, and a Jewish tailor.
Having watched the series nearly straight through, watched the BBC’s short program on the controversy it created, and read a wide variety of other reviews of the series, I will be pretty unapologetic in saying that it is one of the best pieces of war film I think I’ve ever seen. As best as I can tell from my vantage point having never been in the military or personally experienced war, it does a tragically good job of portraying what war does to people. It neither glamorizes nor judges the characters for their actions, it simply shows them going through what actually happens on a personal level. The acting is magnificent, and we see the changes to the characters as happening naturally without being beaten over the head. Between the writing, directing, and acting the characters manage to play roles as archetypes without becoming cliches – no easy task for a film!
On a technical level, Generation War is magnificent. I’m sure there are some mistakes (like the appearance of an MG42 before they should have existed), but they are so minor in context as to be unnoticeable. The set design, lighting, uniforms, and equipment are correct and engrossing down to miniscule levels of detail. The mix of action with dialogue and other character interaction is well balanced and I never found myself drifting despite the series’ 4.5 hour length. Here’s the official trailer:
In short, just go watch it. It’s not a happy story, so plan accordingly. I should also note that the original German title was “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” – “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” in reflection of the director’s goal of stimulating conversation between young Germans today and the disappearing generation who lived this story themselves (and he was very successful in sparking that conversation). It is available both as DVD and as streaming video, in three 1.5-hour episodes:
I wanted to start this review with my own take because I think a lot of the other reviews out there are, frankly, wrong and miss the point – and I don’t want to take away form the impact of the series by debating them. So once you’ve seen the series, then click to read more and we’ll look at why the reviewers who disliked this are wrong (sploilers).
Okay, let’s look at some of the complaints people have brought up…
The Characters Meet Up Far Too Often
Yes, it is wildly implausible that these five characters would encounter each other as often as they do in such a wide-ranging story as the entire Eastern Front. Also, it’s implausible that Wilhelm and Friedhelm would be in the same unit. What this complaint misses is the fact that it’s a story. Having the characters meet each other gives us a way to watch how they are changing relative to each other. It’s not a documentary.
The Jewish Friend is Implausible in 1941
Yeah, probably. Again, it’s a story. Having Viktor in the story allows us to see his side of the partisan warfare in occupied Poland and Russia.
The Director is Trying to Absolve Germany of Responsibility for War/Holocaust/Other Atrocities
Did we ever watch the same series? German solider, both Wehrmacht and SS, are clearly shown as being directly responsible for all sorts of horrible things. The film doesn’t try to bring judgement one way or another, it simply shows what happened (I am reminded of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men). I think the series does a very good job of not making judgements, and I think that efforts to find them are misguided. What one should do is take this story as a starting point for understanding the behavior of other people in extreme circumstances and for assessing how one ought to behave one’s self.
It Skips Right Over [Stalingrad/Invasion of Poland/Invasion of France/something else]
The specific battles that are involved are really besides the point, as this is a story about human characters and not a history of the war.
The Polish Home Army is Too Antisemitic
Many of the AK units were friendly to Jews. Many were as hateful of them as the worst Nazis and communists. The group Viktor encounters is in the middle. They throw him out for being a Jew, but they also save his life. The fact of the matter is that there weren’t very many good options for European Jews in the 30s and 40s; hating Jews was not something unique to Germany.