'Generation War': Film Grapples With the German Side of WWII

I’m antiwar, but for some reason I love good war movies, especially ones about World War II.

While the Vietnam flicks may have better rock ’n' roll soundtracks, WWII is arguably Hollywood’s most-retold war. Perhaps this is because it was nicknamed “The Big One” -- a genuinely global conflagration of truly apocalyptic proportions, from the Holocaust to Allied firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In addition to being the deadliest armed conflict in human history, WWII was cast by the Allies as an epic battle between good and evil, in keeping with themes straight out of the book of Revelations. The war against fascism has the aura of ancient holy crusades, and to many it remains the last time America’s foreign military adventures landed on right side of history.

But because history is inevitably written by the victors, most WWII films focus on the triumphant Allied forces. That’s where “Generation War” comes in, illustrating the German side of the war from the perspective of civilians, soldiers, partisans, Christians and Jews.

This cinematic saga begins at a party in Berlin, circa 1941, when the Nazis were at the apex of their power. Five young friends gather for a final celebration as Hitler is launching Operation Barbarossa, the fateful invasion of the Soviet Union. Nobody had any idea that at the time that the invasion would prove to be the Third Reich’s undoing.

The five characters include two brothers -- the gung-ho officer Wilhelm Winter (played by Volker Bruch) and his younger, more sensitive brother Friedhelm (portrayed by Tom Schilling), who is skeptical about the regime and its wars and treated as an outcast on the front lines. Charlotte (played by Miriam Stein) is the girl in love with Wilhelm. Deluded by National Socialist propaganda, she volunteers to work as a nurse on the Russian front. Finally, there’s Greta (played Katharina Schuttler), a young woman who yearns to become a Marlene Dietrich-like torch singer. However, Greta’s cabaret career faces immense obstacles. Namely, her lover Viktor Goldstein (played by Ludwig Trepte), who is a Jew. Nevertheless, he is not only beloved by Greta but warmly accepted by the rest of the group as one of their own.

The introductory sequence is rudely interrupted by a Gestapo officer who crashes the quintet’s party, hunting for Jews and demanding to know if they are playing verboten swing music. Narrowly escaping the close brush with Hitler’s enforcer, the five young Berliners bitterly promise to reunite and spend Christmas together in six months, once the U.S.S.R. had been crushed by the Third Reich.

The group’s plans are soon swallowed whole by the all-consuming maelstrom of total war.

The film follows these five protagonists as they travel from the home front to the Russian front, and all the horrors their journey entails.

“Generation War” is largely about shattered illusions. Perhaps the most deluded among the lead characters is Viktor, a tailor’s son who believes that his father’s service during WWI would spare the family the worst of Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question.” As history hauntingly unfolds, exposing the depth of the Nazi regime’s lies and brutality, most of these characters finally wise up. Ironically, the most critical of the quintet is ultimately consumed by the war he’d doubted all along, succumbing to the fascist fever.

Philipp Kadelbach’s powerful direction here displays a keen cinematic talent, using handheld cameras and subjective cinematography to take viewers right into the heat of combat. Kadelbach previously directed the 2011 blimp biopic “Hindenburg: The Last Flight,” a two-part miniseries for the Encore TV network. “Generation War” has stirred controversy for depicting German protagonists and a Jewish Nazi sympathizer during WWII, but my main reservation on this film is the narrative’s over-reliance on coincidences. The various characters seem to serendipitously cross paths on the far-flung fronts, or experience miraculous last minute rescues. Both of these devices strain the film’s credulity.

These flukes, however awkward, do not dramatically undercut the veracity of what is ultimately one of the best WWII movies in years. “Generation War” is a well-written, four-hour tour de force. Writer Stefan Kolditz, who was born in East Germany and also co-wrote the 2006 drama “Dresden,” should be commended.

Although originally aired in Germany as a three-part miniseries, “Generation War” is being presented in the U.S. as two distinct features with separate admissions. It is currently being rolled out across the U.S. and opens Feb. 28 in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theatre.

Let’s just hope that “Generation War” is the closest American audiences ever get an inside view of all out war and the tyranny of fascism.

Watch a trailer:


Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s man in Hollywood and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book,” available now.