Sturm und drang

German mini-series 'Generation War' offers a sudsy look back at WWII

Volker Bruch as Wilhelm in Generation War

FILM It is awkward, no doubt, living in a land whose 20th-century legacy was becoming synonymous with evil — "Nazi," "Hitler," and "Holocaust" are still terms we use in describing or comparing the absolute worst human behaviors. Toward the end of Generation War, a three-part TV miniseries being shown here as a two-part movie, one character anticipates the cultural amnesia of peacetime by saying "Soon there will only be Germans and not a single Nazi." That's a canny statement in a nearly five-hour soap opera that doesn't have quite enough of them.

Postwar Germany willed itself not only into economic rehabilitation, but into becoming one of the world's more politically progressive and socially tolerant societies. (With exceptions, of course.) No doubt part of this was a function of guilt, and younger generations' determination not to repeat the past. But it must also have been driven by a desire to bury that past as discreetly as possible without actually seeming to do so. Neo-Nazi freaks aside, you won't likely now meet anyone in Germany who pledged allegiance to Hitler. Nor would you have 30 or 50 years ago. Even (or especially) guards at Auschwitz shared in the selective national amnesia that followed capitulation and the subsequent revelations of war atrocities. It's understandable, if not entirely to be sympathized with: How do you live publicly with being on the side of the exterminators? You don't, that's how. You gradually build up personal distance until it's a wall scarcely more abstract than the one that came down to reunite Germany in 1989.

Generation War was originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, to underline the relevancy of the discussion it's presumably trying to stir at home — even if for many viewers the war generation would have been their grandparents'. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, it starts out in dismayingly hackneyed fashion as we're introduced to our youthful protagonists. Celebrating a birthday in 1941 near the war's start, when Axis victory seems assured, they pose for a photo you know damn well is going to be the heart-tugging emblem of innocence horribly lost for the next 270 minutes.

There's true-blue Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), who's already served one tour of duty to the west, and is now heading to the Eastern front with younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), a dreamy pacifist. In love with Wilhelm but annoyingly reluctant — for years on end — to say so is sugary Charlotte (Miriam Stein), herself headed to the front as a nurse. Staying behind are Greta (Katharina Schüttler), who fancies herself the next Marlene Dietrich, and her boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who can't convince his willfully oblivious parents that German Jews like themselves are in mortal danger.

Needless to say, all illusions are eventually dashed. Amid the grueling, endless, disastrous campaign against the Soviet Union, Wilhelm is embarrassed by his "cowardly" brother until the latter adapts to pervasive inhumanity by becoming a cold killing machine himself. Charlotte overcomes her squeamishness at the daily hospital carnage while retaining her compassion. Greta does become famous, thanks to the high-ranking Gestapo patron (Mark Waschke) she sleeps with. But the prima donna arrogance she develops proves perilous, and her attempts to get Viktor smuggled out to safety go awry — escaping a train headed to a concentration camp, he joins a group of Polish partisans scarcely less anti-Semitic than the Nazis.

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