It’s June 1941 in Berlin, and two brothers, elder decorated soldier Wilhelm and younger bookworm Friedhelm, are off to war. “This is about nothing less than the future of Germany,” their father says. Out in the hall, their weeping mother tells Wilhelm, “Bring him back to me,” referring to Friedhelm. “Promise!” So, you know, no pressure as they leave to fight for der Führer.
This is the beginning of Generation War, a 279-minute German miniseries that’s now receiving a theatrical release, presented in two parts with an intermission. Don’t let the run time intimidate you: With all due respect to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Philipp Kadelbach’s epic might be the best World War II drama that’s ever graced TV. Viewers will be uncomfortable, but they will not be bored.
After leaving the safety of their home, Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and Friedhelm (Tom Schilling, who played Hitler in the 2009 Austrian comedy Mein Kampf) meet up with some old friends for a celebratory goodbye. Aspiring singer Greta (Katharina Schuttler) hosts at the bar where she slings suds, welcoming the brothers as well as her friend Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a nurse who’s secretly in love with Wilhelm and eager to serve in the Red Cross. There’s also Greta’s boyfriend, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who’s Jewish and quickly hidden when SS officers have a look around after getting reports of swing music, which Joseph Goebbels considers “degenerate.”
These four, you see, are technically Nazis—excepting Viktor, of course—but actually not so much. They are so jovial at this gathering, you wonder if they understand the gravity of the situation. And they don’t, believing the war will be over quickly and they will meet again at Christmas. Wilhelm occasionally narrates the story, and when the group takes a cheery photo, he says, “The world lay before us; we just had to take it. We were immortal.” There’s a beat as the camera snaps. “We would soon know better.”
Written over a period of nearly eight years by Stefan Kolditz, Generation War has some minor flaws, one of which is dialogue that’s sporadically corny or clichéd (as above) or a bit too pretty (Wilhelm says of a swarm of flies, “We fatten them with our flesh”). A worse offense, though, is how often these friends rather unbelievably run into each other, as if they were in military school instead of spread about a multinational conflict.
But if they couldn’t accidentally check in with each other over the years, how would they see how they’ve changed? It’s no surprise that naive idealists usually morph into hardened realists, with frightening eye-openers serving as a bridge. Charlotte isn’t so giddy when she sees her first blood-covered casualty. Friedhelm takes longer to evolve, initially holding back and nearly in tears when it’s time to fight, with his troop regarding him as a coward. Greta is sheltered for nearly all of it, having an affair with the commander (Mark Waschke) who invaded her going-away party when he says he can help launch her career—as well as get Viktor papers to escape. She sees Charlotte when she performs for the soldiers, and is gape-mouthed when her friend, tending to a quickly dying victim, asks Greta—in red lipstick and fine clothes—to help.
The gist of Generation War is what to some may be a hard-sell theory: Perhaps not all Nazis were bad people. But the idea is portrayed too thoroughly to dismiss—and, really, it’s simple logic. What grips you throughout its challenging length, however, is that the film is essentially a horror movie. Tension is one thing, with Jews trying to hide in plain sight. But its cringe-inducing scenes are more relentless and borderline unbearable: How can you not react to seeing the face of a still soldier who knows he just stepped on a landmine? Or watching the sudden execution of a child, accompanied by the rationale, “She’s not a civilian, she’s a Jew.”
Kadelbach doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed, either. Unlike too much cinematic violence, the consequences of being shot, stabbed, blown up, etc., are viscerally depicted; you must look. The cinematography in general may be muted—greens, grays, browns—but there’s no softening of blood red. The five friends naturally re-evaluate their priorities—and politics—as they endure such unimaginable conditions. If you come away with no other message, you witness the pointlessness of unwavering war, of sacrificing or traumatizing the lives of young adults who may not support its objective. You automatically think of modern times, of all the soldiers who, if they survive, are scarred forever, often unable to readjust to normal life. One brief exchange in Generation War leans purple but true: “How did you become like this?” a freshman soldier asks Friedhelm. “You resist the temptation to be human,” he says. “All that’s certain is that nobody stays the same.”