Though it comes to Los Angeles as a two-part film, "Generation War" began its life as a three-part German TV series (originally called "Our Mothers, Our Fathers") that was a sensation in its home country.
Eight years in the making, 4 hours, 39 minutes long (and needing two separate admissions during its weeklong run at Landmark's Nuart), "Generation War" attracted millions of viewers on German TV. Its story will be familiar and unfamiliar to American viewers, which is why it holds our interest even when it is not at its best.
On the one hand, there is obviously nothing new in the notion of observing the course of a war through the eyes of attractive young people who start out bright and shiny as new pfennigs and end up considerably more tarnished.
In that sense, "Generation War" is the kind of epic, combat-intensive TV that echoes everything from "Band of Brothers" to "The Winds of War." As written by Stefan Kolditz and directed by Philipp Kadelbach, "Generation War" is also in many ways old-fashioned television, filled with broad strokes and leaning heavily on a flurry of wild coincidences.
"Generation War" has a texture and an interest that American stories do not. Because this is a story of good people who found themselves involved in a bad cause, "Generation War" had an almost "12 Years a Slave" element for German audiences, a sense of wondering, how did we come to believe what we believed, follow who we followed and do what we did.
It also helps to have, as "Generation War" does, attractive and gifted young actors to play the leading parts. With performers this engaging, we never want to stop watching, even as events go from grim to grimmer over four long and bitter years.
"Generation War's" narrator is Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), already a career military officer when the story begins in 1941. He has the responsibility of looking after his newly enlisted bookworm younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), who insists to anyone who will listen that "the war will bring out the worst in everyone."
We also meet the brothers' trio of friends as the five comrades gather for a last farewell before the war separates them. Charlotte (Miriam Stein) is an idealistic young nurse secretly in love with Wilhelm, while Greta (Katherina Schuttler) is a careerist singer who forms a tight couple with Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), a young Jew with dreams of his own.
Confident that the war will end by Christmas, the five friends take a group photo and then have their loud party ruined by a scolding Nazi functionary (well played by Mark Waschke) who makes it his business to make their lives miserable for as long as he can.
"Generation War" takes place almost exclusively on the Russian front, so Americans are almost nonexistent in its story line. There are involving combat sequences — this may turn out to be the kind of traditional war film the "Monuments Men" audience thought it was getting — and things happen to each of these five friends that are worse than they can imagine, leading to personal crises and even personality changes.
Over and over again, the characters echo Friedhelm and discover that "this isn't the war I was expecting" or "nothing is how I thought it would be," but this wisdom comes too late.
Though some of it is standard, this film can be unflinching in how it depicts German soldiers. We see the murder of civilians, the unthinking embracing of anti-Semitism, the savage battles with Polish partisans, shell shock, desertion and all manner of horrors. "The only winners in this war," a fed-up soldier says, "are the flies. We will fatten them with our flesh." The German version of standard Hollywood heroism "Generation War" is not.