Philipp Kadelbach's "Generation War"


Philipp Kadelbach’s “Generation War” (the German title “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” translates to “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”) first aired on ZDF in Germany and Austria in March 2013 garnering a high 20.5 percent market share among viewers aged 14-59 years.

The well-researched three part miniseries, produced by the UFA subsidiary TeamWorx enraging many critics in Germany and Poland. Some critics suggested the series soft peddled the Nazi persecution of Jews and the German role in the Holocaust, while suggesting the young soldiers were coerced and victimized by the Nazi Regime. Noted historians both praised and criticized the series. The major criticism was the portrait of of the Nazis as Germany’s sole racists which ignored the pervasive climate of Anti Semitism in the general population.

Poland’s ambassador to Berlin, Jerzy Marganski, slammed the series in a letter sent to German public television station ZDF, which broadcast the 14 million-euro production. railing at the portrait of unrelieved Polish anti-semitism. He also complained that viewers learn nothing of the Warsaw uprising, in which up to 200,000 Polish civilians died, nor of the many Poles who helped Jews.

Taduesz Filipkowski, spokesman for the Polish veteran’s International Home Army Association also criticised the German production, calling the series “an attempt to justify Nazi crimes by setting them against the alleged anti-Semitism that existed in Poland before the war.”

However, history documents Polish systemic Anti-Semitism, Partisan Anti-Semitism, and the brutal Russian reprisals in Post War Germany.

The Economist stated that rarely had any German TV drama triggered this much public debate. “The fictional drama… had on average 7.6m viewers per night. Suddenly the few survivors of Germany’s wartime generation are being sought out as never before by talk shows and newspapers. Grandfathers and grandmothers, who for years kept silent… are facing questions about how it could happen, what it was like and whether they saw atrocities. Some more painful questions about who committed what atrocity are resurfacing, too.”

Like the recent spate of survivors interviewed on TV after the series aired, the series’ protagonists realize early on that the war cannot be won but are trapped in circumstances that forces each to betray others or kill to survive.

Producer Nico Hofmann defended the scrupulously defended work and was encouraged by the National debate between the generations.

“Generation War” follows five 20-something German childhood friends through Nazi Germany and World War II: As Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front, war nurse, aspiring singer, and Jewish tailor respectively.

It’s 1941. On the eve of the German attack on the Soviet Union five friends meet in Berlin, promising to spend next New Year’s Eve in Berlin. None can imagine the changes they and the world will weather. I confess, I found this comforting view of German friendship unbelievable.

Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch) narrates. Veteran infantry officer Wilhelm, his father’s favorite promises his mother (Johanna Gastdorf) he’ll bring his younger brother, literary minded Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) home.

At the front the idealistic young  Wehrmacht officer covers for Friederich, who fails to volunteer for dangerous missions. Both do their Officers’ dirty work, killing innocent Russian civilians and Polish Partisan fighters. When his whole company is killed to capture an irrelevant post office, Wilhelm deserts.

Wounded Friederich’s homecoming is marred by his father’s disgust.  Mr. Winter (Peter Kremer) is disappointed; the wrong son has returned. Friederich returns to the front and dies a hero.

Seasoned, brutalized Friederich leads an ill-equiped crew of young and aged Volkssturm (German national militia of the last months of World War II) sacrificing himself by attacking a whole Soviet unit single-handedly as his soldiers desert.

Charlotte or ‘Charlie’ (Miriam Stein), who loves Wilhelm in secret, becomes a nurse at the Russian Front. Overwhelmed she’s mentored by her assistant Ukranian Lilija (Christiane Paul). Discovering Lilija is a covert jewish doctor, she reports her and suffers guilt when Lilija’s arrested.  She believes Wilhelm is dead, and begins an affair with Dr. Jahn (Götz Schubert) the older doctor in charge of her unit.

Greta (Katharina Schüttler) the groups world-be a film star, is in love with Viktor Goldstein (Ludwig Trepte) the sole Jew in the group.

Vicktor fails to convince his mother (Dorka Gryllus) and father (Samuel Finzi) a successful tailer, to emigrate and their chance to escape closes. Father Goldstein, a decorated World War 1 veteran considers himself a patriot.

Greta and Viktor continue their affair, considered an act of “racial shame.” Pursued by highranking SS officer Dorn (Mark Waschke) Greta wheedles papers for Vickter to emigrate from her besotted married lover, who turns her into a famous radio star Greta WHAT. Heady with success, spoiled Greta fails to help Viktor’s family who are deported.

Jealous Dorn produces papers but betrays Viktor who is arrested and sent to the camps. Believing Viktor safe in New York, Greta continues her professional and sexual realtion ship with Zorn, travelling to the Front as a singer.

Viktor and Polish partisan Alina (Alina Levshi) escape a railway transport car and join the Polish resistance, forcing Viktor to hide his Jewishness again from the Anti-Semite Polish Partisans.

Dubbed the German “Band Of Brothers”, the series shot by David Slama and edited by Bernd Schlegel manages an impressive, raw view of battle. Using a mixture of newsreel footage (of both the blitzkrieg and the German retreat) mixed with well staged street battles, Kadelbach captures a gritty view of close combat that far outstrips “Band Of Brothers’ in it’s engrossing reality.  Production design by Thomas Stammer, and art direction by Frank Herzog and Alexander Wunderlich make the most of the budget.

It’s not a whitewash; we see German soldiers dehumanizing the populations in occupied territories, killing innocent civilians, burning houses, using civilians as mine field scouts, but Kadelbach seems to take the easy way out. Most Nazis remain offscreen, as does the the killing machine the Reich had become,  allowing him to present the ground floor view of the war.  Hoping to encourage younger audiences to question what they would do in the trenches, the series lays the blame on the older generations who sent their young to war.

I cannot answer to the various attacks. My problem is one I experience watching most TV, even event miniseries like this one. I’m in love with Cinema. Great or even good cinema startles you in it’s expressive use of camera, wakens you to truths, questions or feeling, employing a mixture of nuanced or poetic scripting and camera placement. What isn”t shown is as important as what is shown.

Television, even the very best, doesn’t reach for that. The filmmakers can’t take that sort of time. Being a mass or middle brow art, It can’t trust the audience enough to bury exposition cleverly. In this film for example. I had one surprise. two characters meet on opposite sides on the battlefield, and a glance passed between them. Minutes later the glance leads to a surprising act.

On the other hand, In one scene in a camp area on the Russian Front, a character, and the camera, notes some people near a well in the background. Kadelbach doesn’t do what many TV directors would, he avoids an expository close-up; but we know, accustomed to the the efficient style of TV movies storytelling, that something bad is about to happen at the well.

In TV, close-ups are used to increase our emotional involvement with the character, a stand in for emotion; in clever film making, a close up surprises us with an interactive intimacy, a questioning voyeurism, and that is the breathtaking poetics of film.

Having said that, I recommend ‘Generation War” as a look into Germany’s current Zeitgiest.

Opens February 28, 2014 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.  The 279 minute running time is split into two theatrical features, with separate admissions: GENERATION WAR, Part 1 (131 minutes); and GENERATION WAR, Part 2 (148 minutes).


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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