Marketed as the Third Reich equivalent of HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” “Generation War” is a popular 2013 German TV miniseries packaged in two parts. However well it unfolded on the small screen back home, as big-screen cinema here it’s a labored, clichéd, and morally problematic, 279-minute soap opera. Though director Philipp Kadelbach and screenwriter Stefan Kolditz do touch on moral ambiguities, and stress the conflict between self-interest, patriotism, and basic decency, they settle comfortably into glib ironies, bittersweet platitudes, and sentiment passing as tragedy.
It starts like Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” as young people patriotically celebrate their country’s entry into war just before getting a taste of its realities. The brothers Winter are in uniform — Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), who’s already been battle-tested in France and Poland, and Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), a left-leaning dreamer who has Rimbaud’s poetry packed in his kit. Tomorrow they set off to invade Russia. Sweet-natured Charlotte (Miriam Stein) is heading for the front, too, as a nurse in a field hospital; she and Wilhelm are in love but neither will admit it. Glamorous Greta (Katharina Schüttler), who aspires to a singing career, will serve on the home front, and her Jewish boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) drinks toasts like the others, not having caught on to the nightmare to come. Then they indulge in that abiding cliché: taking the group photo that each will cling to as history shatters their beliefs and dreams.
For now, though, they expect to meet again in Berlin at Christmas after a quick German victory. As Wilhelm points out in voice-over, however, they would soon learn otherwise. And as the atrocities mount and the army pushes deeper into Russia, he will also say, again and again, that this was not the war they were expecting.
So much for irony. Actually, Wilhelm should not have been surprised about his army’s barbaric behavior, after no doubt witnessing the same during the invasion of Poland. Now, though, these excesses test his resolve. As for Friedhelm, he soon learns that there are no poets or pacifists in foxholes. His steady moral degradation provides the film’s most compelling insight into how, as he says, “war brings out the worst in people.” But his repetition of that phrase doesn’t make it any more convincing.
Will the five ever meet up again? As they say, it’s a small World War. They keep bumping into each other, and even manage a serendipitous get-together (minus Viktor, who has his own problems) on the eve of the Battle of Kursk. Then everything unravels.
These are regular people, forced by circumstances to such unfortunate acts as shooting civilians and betraying friends. Who among us could say with confidence that they would behave any differently? And don’t forget that they are also capable of small acts of decency that may not add up to much, but still must count for something. Should they be condemned for being in the wrong war at the wrong time? It’s a hard sell: Unlike the Band of Brothers, they don’t represent the Greatest Generation, but maybe the worst.