Nostalgic German TV Series Takes History Out of WW2

The cleverly made 'Generation War' miniseries turns the memory of wartime Germany into a popular entertainment legend, without referring to thornier issues.

There are works that are fascinating to take in despite their artistic faults, in part because of those very faults. “Generation War,” a German-made miniseries, is such a creation. It was first broadcast in the winter of 2013 in Germany, where its viewer ratings were high, and it has already been screened at Israel's Cinematheques, in two parts: the first, 132 minutes runtime, the second 148 minutes.

The story begins in Berlin in 1941, on the eve of Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, and ends in the ruins of that city after the war is over. It follows five friends: two brothers, Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch) and Friedhelm Winter (Tom Schilling); two women, Greta (Katharina Schuttler) and Charlotte (Miriam Stein), and a Jewish tailor named Viktor Goldstein (Ludwig Trepte).

In the first scene we meet the five at a Berlin bar, drinking, smoking and listening to forbidden American jazz. The Winter brothers are about to join the German army on the eastern front, but the group is sure that they will all meet up again soon because a German victory is assured. Even the appearance in the bar of a Gestapo officer who confiscates the records they are listening to and warns Greta about her relationship with the Jewish tailor, does not disturb their complacency.

This scene is sure to be taught in film schools. It is a masterpiece of schematic but effective exposition: Everything is here, including each character and his or her personal story, as well as the foundations of the ideological framework that propels the series as a whole. The goal is not to tell the story of the Third Reich, but rather to shape the way this story is remembered, 70 years later. It is therefore not surprising that when this goal is realized in a contemporary German-made product for television, whose primary audience is the German public – the result is fascinating even if we are aware of every trick employed by the series' creators to get the job done.

“Generation War” turns the memory of Nazi Germany into popular entertainment that combines romantic melodrama with a war movie packed with action and special effects. The license to do so was originally provided by the American film industry, which as early as the 1960s used the same war as the basis for a number of successful and entertaining adventure movies such as “Where Eagles Dare” and “The Dirty Dozen.” They imbued the memory of World War II with a romantic, even nostalgic, quality (and it’s not a coincidence that their makers sought to create a different memory during the Vietnam War, the aims and achievements of which were so different to America). “Schindler’s List” further legitimized this effort.

A scene from 'Generation War'. Photo by Courtesy

The narrative centrality of the pair of brothers, who spend almost the entire war together, highlights the desire to create a myth (a desire that can be seen even in the series’ emotionally charged original name, “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”). It also relates to the films that were made after the Nazis rose to power and during the war itself, with their explicit mythological aspects. The two brothers’ positioning within the group of five friends is another effective and incredibly sly trick. And the way in which “Generation War” follows each character recalls the novels published by Erich Maria Remarque more than a decade after World War I, “Three Comrades” and “All Quiet on the Western Front," and their popular and critically acclaimed Hollywood film versions.

Even if Remarque’s name is not mentioned in the miniseries – certainly not all its viewers in Germany, especially the younger ones, would even recognize his narrative and stylistic contribution – it is a devious device; the veiled reference is to an author whose books were banned and even burned as early as 1933. (Remarque fled to Switzerland; in 1938 he was stripped of his German citizenship and in 1943 his sister, who stayed in Germany with her husband and their two children, was executed.)

This historical manipulation is one of many tricks employed by the miniseries in its double game, which persists throughout its length and whose purpose is to turn the memory of World War II into popular entertainment without upsetting either the people who still cling, with pride mixed with sorrow, to the memory of the Third Reich or those who demand that its existence be renounced once and for all.

A scene from 'Generation War'. Photo by Courtesy

“Generation War,” an ideological product in every way, avoids dealing with ideology. Its five characters have difficult wartime experiences but they refrain from touching on the ideology that is behind their fates. Their story is supposed to operate on some general human level of heroism and sacrifice, loyalty and betrayal, love and its price, a level that seeks to detach itself from its specific historical and ideological context.

No extermination camps

The pair of brothers – one of whom, Wilhelm, is an officer – are not depicted as eager for battle, but neither are they described as being aware of the ideological reasons behind it. The difficulties that they experience, like their personality crises, stem from the fact that, as we have learned from the movies dozens of times, war – any war – is hell.

A scene from 'Generation War'. Photo by Courtesy

The dark-haired Gerta has an affair with a Nazi officer, in order to advance her singing career and also to help Viktor, the Jew, whom she loves. Charlotte, with her classical Aryan looks, becomes a nurse because that’s what good women do in wartime. And Viktor? Viktor, whose Jewish father wears the yellow Star of David but refuses to believe the Germans will hurt him, is sent to a death camp but manages to escape from the train together with a Polish woman. She is the only one among all the passengers crowded into the car of that train who dares to go with him; the rest watch them in submissive silence.

In other words, no extermination camps are shown in the series, whose measure of brutality and blatant anti-Semitism is meted out by the Polish partisans whom Viktor joins (in Poland the series was a great success but also elicited a wave of protest), and by the Russian army.

Perhaps the most bizarre feeling that comes up while watching “Generation War” is the sense that the series attempts to put its five characters in the center of the history that it presents, while at the same time taking the characters and their entire generation out of history. That may be the most basic meaning of the series’ double game: Its five characters are enmeshed in the history that surrounds them and they pay a heavy price, but they also seem to be detached from it, as if in some private world, so as to eliminate the possibility of confronting them with any question of collaboration, responsibility or collective guilt.

A scene from 'Generation War'. Photo by Youtube

Nostalgia wrapped in romanticism and sentimentality is a most prominent feature of German culture, which is commonly seen in the way that country's films relate to its history (including in relatively recent ones, such as “The Lives of Others” and “Barbara,” which are set in pre-unification East Germany). It is only when this nostalgia is accompanied by irony, even vicious irony (as in a few of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films) that it has any artistic value.

When this irony is missing, as in “Generation War,” if the work is well made – and this series is certainly well made – it does have historic, sociological and political value, which does not necessarily add up to an artistic experience but is fascinating for that very reason. “Generation War” provides early 21st-century Germany, the strongest state in Europe, with the history it longs for: a history that it acknowledges, but also a history that, because it is outside of history, also releases Germany from the bounds of history.

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