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Germans Make a Sympathetic TV Series about WWII. What Could Go Wrong?

The well-intentioned, deeply troubling hear of "Generation War"

Courtesy of Music Box Films

When Generation War was first broadcast as a miniseries in Germany in March of last year, it was called "Our Mothers, Our Fathers." That original title makes clear just how much is at stake when Germans make a film about World War II. Our mothers and fathers—or, for younger Germans today, grandfathers and even great-grandfathers—what were they up to in the years 1939-45? The rest of the world sees those Germans, the ones who conquered Europe and committed genocide, as the monsters of the twentieth century. But how can one's own mother and father be monsters? Aren't there other stories to be told, and other ways to tell the stories, that would allow Germans to at least have some pity for their forebears—maybe even some degree of pride?

To these questions, Generation War, now showing in American theaters, gives the most reassuring answers. Our mothers and fathers, it turns out, were not Nazis, or anti-Semites, or war criminals. Such people did exist in Nazi Germany—that much of the truth the film admits. But Generation War focuses on five protagonists who are too young, innocent, and—not least—physically attractive to be thought of as evil. As the story flings them to and fro on the Eastern Front, they emerge rather as the victims of their society, almost as much as the Poles, Russians, and Jews whose slaughter forms the background to their adventures and romances. Without ever whitewashing the crimes of Nazi Germany, Generation War manages to cordon them off, to make them someone else's responsibility, someone else's heritage. No wonder it was a huge ratings success on German television.

Courtesy of Music Box Films
Volker Bruch as Wilhelm Winter

When the film opens, in the summer of 1941, the five friends at its center are having a good-bye party at a Berlin bar, vowing naively to reunite by Christmas. One of them, the earnest soldier Wilhelm Winter, has already fought in Poland and France, but we never learn what he did there; the experience has only made him a tough trooper and a leader of men. The same cannot be said for his younger brother, the newly drafted Friedhelm, who cares only about reading Rimbaud, and looks on the whole war less with moral disapproval than aesthetic disdain. The women of the group are Greta, a would-be torch singer, who is too frivolous to have anything to do with politics, and Charly, short for Charlotte, a nurse in training who goes off to the war out of sheer humanitarian idealism: "We represent the German woman," she cheerfully repeats.

The fifth member of the group is, for the film's purposes, the most important of all. He is Viktor Goldstein, and yes, he is a Jew—a Jew who is the bosom friend of four young Aryans in Nazi Berlin in 1941, and the lover of one of them, the heedless Greta. Now, these young Germans are supposed to be about twenty when the film begins, which means that they were twelve when Hitler took power. For eight years they would have been subjected to Nazi propaganda; they would have been members of the Hitler Youth. Would such people really accept a Jew like Viktor as a bosom friend? Would they even have a chance to meet him, since Jews had already been expelled from the schools, most jobs, and even public places like parks and zoos? Yet Generation War assures us that this friendship was normal: it was those other Germans who hated Jews, not "our mothers, our fathers."

The adventures of these friends as they navigate World War II are skillfully contrived and lushly photographed. No one in Generation War starves, or has frostbite, or spends more than a poignant minute in a hospital. Rather, we see them fight, suffer, love, part and reunite, against the background of snowy battlefields and bustling hospitals. There is an outsize role for coincidence—with all the millions of Germans on the Eastern front, these five seem to run into each other on an awfully regular basis. Yet the arcs of their characters are highly consistent. Each ends up ruined by the war, their innocence stolen and their good motives wasted. "We went off as heroes and now we are murderers," Wilhelm reflects, and we are expected to sympathize, not to ask whether a soldier in the Wehrmacht could ever be called a hero. Even Friedhelm the idealist is brutalized by the war, willing to shoot down a fleeing child without batting an eyelash; even Wilhelm the good soldier tries to desert, worn down by the years of useless struggle.

In a sense, it is Viktor the Jew who has the best war. While we are told that he spent time in a concentration camp, we don't see him there. Rather, we follow his adventures in the forest with a band of Polish partisans, complete with a beautiful young girl as his companion. When the Poles finally discover that he is Jewish, they kick him out—you see, it wasn't just the Germans who hated Jews!—but in the meantime he gets lots of fresh air and exercise, and keeps his virtue. That's more than poor Friedhelm can say: He ends up walking into a hail of Russian bullets because, at heart, he remains too fine for the brutal world he's been drafted into.

The frustrating thing about Generation War is that it feels so morally frivolous even as it is intent on checking all the right historical boxes. We see the Security Police rounding up and shooting Jewish women and children, with the connivance—though not, notably, the actual participation—of regular Wehrmacht soldiers. We see Charly, the meekest and nicest of the main characters, rat out a Jewish fellow-nurse, in the belief that she is doing her duty. (But later in the film the Jewish nurse returns in triumph as a Russian officer—there's no explanation of how she escaped death, but Charly turns out to be not guilty after all.) We see how Nazi propaganda against Bolshevism became a license for the indiscriminate murder of Jews and Russian soldiers. 

Courtesy of Music Box Films
Lucas Gregorowicz as Jerzy

Yet all of these things remain, so to speak, the official background of Generation War. The foreground, the actions of the characters we sympathize with and care about, always tell a different story. When Viktor is on a cattle car to Auschwitz, for instance, he is able to escape by prying up floorboards with a knife. Reading the accounts of actual Holocaust survivors makes clear that this would have been all but impossible: On most such transports, the passengers were packed together so closely that they didn't have room to sit down, much less to escape, MacGyver-style. But in Generation War, when Viktor makes his escape the other Jews have a chance to follow him, we hear them refusing, saying they are afraid to do it. In this way, their deaths are made to be their own fault: If only more Jews were as venturesome as Viktor, the movie implies, the Holocaust might have turned out differently. 

In the end, the falsehood of Generation War is not so much a matter of deliberate bad faith as a structural defect. To make a popular miniseries about World War II, it must be entertaining. To be entertaining, it must be the story of likable people facing great but surmountable obstacles. The story of the six million Jews who died is not entertaining, but the story of Viktor Goldstein who survived can be. Likewise, we might not find it fun to watch a movie about actual Nazis, so they are kept almost entirely offscreen, with the exception of one or two cartoon bullies. The manipulation of sympathy, the defiance of historical realities, the insistence on showing the exception rather than the rule: These are practically requirements when it comes to making a middlebrow war movie. America has made plenty of them; but when the Germans do it, the rest of the world has a right to be concerned.