Created for German television, where it debuted last spring, the World War II epic Our Mothers, Our Fathers has since aired on Polish, Irish, and Swedish networks, and now finds its way to a theatrical release, retitled Generation War for American audiences. Conceived and undertaken, in the words of producer Nico Hofmann, as “a sensitive, critical homage to the generation of my parents” — those “everyday Germans,” according to writer Stefan Kolditz, caught out by history as adult life began — the four-hour production was also designed as a conversation piece.
The conversation Hofmann and Kolditz had in mind is itself much talked about in Germany, where Generation War attracted record viewers. An outsider might get the impression that the decades-long discussion of the need for a national conversation about what happened during the war has replaced whatever actual conversation it might have produced. This is not the case, of course, though Generation War claims to represent a German experience as yet ignored by popular storytelling. The relative rarity of German perspectives on the war is owed in part to the idea that, especially at the movies, history is recounted by the winners, and in Hollywood, those winners tend to be American. The winners of World War II have the narrative advantage of having fought a war of absolute ideologies and triumphed over genocidal fascism, which is part of what makes the subject so popular with freedom-loving filmmakers and their audiences.
At a relative disadvantage, then, Generation War presents a war of individuals whose actions are guided not by evil or ideology but by common ignorance, self-interest, obligation, and compromise. Five young friends — two women and three men, one of whom is Jewish — part ways on a raucous 1941 evening, filled with romantic ideas of the war and where it might take them, certain of their return to Berlin by Christmas. All except Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who is deported and joins the Polish Resistance after escaping from a concentration camp, will take on shades of the archetypal “good German” over four years of war; in the beginning they are less black-and-white than green. In voiceover, Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) reflects on his little group’s naïveté: “We were five, five friends. The whole world lay before us. All we had to do was take it.”
Questions of who is taking what (and how and why) are gently blurred and only occasionally drawn into the foreground, where they prove more obtrusive for having been held at a remove. Wilhelm and his more skeptical little brother, Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), enlist as Wehrmacht soldiers and head to the eastern front, where they find SS officers who ignore the rules of combat and murder Jewish civilians at will. The brothers are shaken, but soon adapt (or maladapt) to war on Nazi terms. Friedhelm, who predicted that the war would bring out the worst in his countrymen, resorts to moral nihilism in order to cope, and ultimately proves even better at following orders than his older brother.
Pining for Wilhelm is Charlotte (Miriam Stein), who enlists as a nurse to stay closer to the brothers. Early on, she informs on a fellow nurse who she discovers is Jewish, a decision rendered with a typically crippling lack of contextual and psychological detail. Portrayed with little sense of what she’s awakening from, Charlotte’s moral education feels schematic. More clearly motivated and purely narcissistic is Greta (Katharina Schüttler), a would-be Dietrich who sleeps with a Nazi both to secure her boyfriend Viktor’s escape and to further her chances as a singer. Though she harms no one, Greta’s heedless vanity — she’ll come to complain while standing over a mortally wounded German soldier — receives one of the film’s harshest punishments.
Finding a dramatic balance between history and the individual is the problem of any historical epic — each must live in and enliven the other. Generation War seeks the epic, creating multiple, lavishly realized worlds and moving with confidence between them. What it finds of both history and its individuals is less complete (and according to those Poles who object to the depiction of an anti-Semitic Polish Resistance, less credible).
Non-Germans might sense in this enactment of the wartime failings and sufferings of five Berliners a faintly therapeutic quality, a sense of tentative initiation, and imagine the value it might have at home. Those same viewers require more from the plight of these characters, however, than the film is equipped to give. Neither allies nor enemies, Charlotte, Wilhelm, Friedhelm, Viktor, and Greta are avatars of history all the same, their psychologies hazy, subject to the diffusions of cliché and hedged inference. They remain “everyday Germans,” only slightly less generic than the film’s title suggests, valuable chiefly as new and perhaps necessary signifiers of Germany’s evolving relationship with its past.