Generation War Review
This is not a documentary and does not attempt to put right some of the wrongs
Seems HBO do not hold the monopoly of big budget high production valued TV – European drama is just as good.Our Mothers, Our Fathers (or in its original language Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter) has inexplicably been renamed for its UK debut to Generation War, a title that may give more insight to the show’s premise, but reduces the meaning. For Generation War is a three (feature length) part TV show, retelling the Second World War; but with this difference: it looks at it from the German perspective, something that is seldom done. It does this by looking at the events of the war through the eyes of five main protagonists, whom we shall look at later, whose fortunes and destinies are decided by this terrible war. Each has their own part to play, each suffers greatly and no one comes away unscathed.
The three part format of the show enables a distinct beginning, middle and end to the proceedings, or introduction, story and conclusion if you will, and each of the protagonists stories are interwoven while they ebb and flow towards inevitable tragedy. And rightly so, the war devastated millions in terms of lives and fortunes and whist the series never shies away from the atrocities committed, it does play a little with the facts for dramatic effect (more later), and coincidence does play quite a large part to the overlapping story threads, again forgivable in terms of story narrative.
This is not a documentary and does not attempt to put right some of the wrongs, but it does play heavily with the drama and produces conflicting emotions, but where it is a real winner is with its attention to detail, storytelling narrative and production values that rival not only blockbuster films, but also some the best produced TV from across the pond.
The first part, titled A Different Time, serves to introduce us to our five protagonists on the eve of the War. And perhaps this is my biggest gripe about the series, it throws us into this opening gambit without any lead into the whys and wherefores about the beginning of the War – it never attempts to show the magnetism of Hitler and how he managed to lead his country into conflict so soon after their defeat in the First World War. It can be argued that this area is unnecessary as it contributes too much backstory into what will eventually become a story about the five individuals, however without this (which could have been shown flashback or character exposition) the characters motivation for their actions is slightly diminished.
However, our first introduction proper is at a party that the five firm friends hold in the back of a bar to a voice over from Wilhelm Winter as he explains our character’s foibles. Wilhelm is a highly decorated soldier, a Lieutenant of his own squad, highly respected both as an officer and a man; his father is justly proud of his son and his motivation is the glory of Germany. He is played by Volker Bruch with a righteous indignation with his first activities in the field being of great success. The German forces are pushing forward the Eastern Front into Russia and Wilhelm is seen and acts every bit the patriotic soldier, doing his duty and leading his men from the front. His story is one of pity. As the war starts to turn and he is forced to commit acts that do not sit right with him, his faith in the Führer wavers and his resignation in the Final Victory fails. His choices with regard to his men and the actions that will lead to his eventual downfall are fully justifiable in the horrors of war, even so his fall from grace and the suffering he endures are a stark reminder that the fortunes of war swing both ways.
His decent into horror is the most difficult to watch with his ultimate fate being, probably, the most upsetting.
Friedhelm Winter, Wilhelm’s younger brother, when introduced is a disappointment to his father, a philosopher, reader and intellect. Far happier dreaming than acting he is well liked by his friends, and brother, and it is his prophetic voice that precedes the doom that befalls our characters. Once in the field his almost pacific nature sees him keep to the back, never volunteer, refuse to shoot his rifle and wish to protect those that are deemed enemies of Germany. These actions lead him to be ostracised, even by his own brother, who is unable to protect him. A turning point in their relationship is when both try to defend a young Jewish girl from certain death to no avail; this effects both deeply for where one becomes disheartened, the other loses his fear and self-loathing and embraces the horror of war becoming the very thing he so despises – and in doing so becomes a formidable warrior, or, as is more apt, a soulless killing machine. Played by Tom Schilling he gives Friedhelm such heart and warmth that his decent into horror is the most difficult to watch with his ultimate fate being, probably, the most upsetting.
Charlotte is in love with Wilhelm, but is afraid to tell him, even on this night which is the eve of when they are all shipping off. She has managed to secure herself a nursing position and wishes to “represent the German women”. She is idealistic and virginal and wants nothing more than the good for her friends and countrymen. Her eyes are very much opened on her first day in a mobile hospital working close to the front lines, where the blood and suffering of those wounded hit home just how hard life on the front really is. She befriends a skilled Russian woman who mentors her a little in working with sick and dying, but upon a startling discovery Charlotte, in doing what she perceives to be the right thing for her country, fails to comprehend quite what her actions mean; it is a decision that haunts her for the rest of her time on the front. She makes rash decisions, withdraws and attempts to sabotage the healing of the wounded, just to give the poor men more time at recuperation. And when she gets stuck behind ‘enemy’ lines she witnesses first-hand how brutal soldiers can be. Played by Miriam Stein she gives Charlotte some terrific optimism only to be replaced by horror and resignation.
Greta, the second girl of the group, is a little temptress and wants nothing more than to become a famous actress or singer, or both. She stays home to work on her career which she does so by becoming a mistress to a high ranking Gestapo officer, who promises to make her a star, one of the few promises he keeps. Using her whiles to get her way, she foolishly thinks she is in charge of her own destiny, but with money and fame so comes ignorance and a false sense of importance. She gets a stark reminder of this when she is drafted as entertainment for the front line troops. Believing she is too important to be left behind during the withdrawal she ends up being just that; and after seeing what Charlotte has to put up with on the front line becomes hardened to the fact of war. When her sharp tongue eventually gets her in serious trouble, even in a country on the brink of losing the war they started, they don’t forget their prisoners. Played by Katharina Schüttler she gives Greta some wonderful spunk during the first half and her eventual downfall is stark and brutal and shown with awful truth.
And finally there is Viktor Goldstein, lover to Greta, and a dressmaker, whose Jewish parents refuse to believe that they are in danger when all the signs point to it. In fact it was Greta and her ‘connection’ that managed to secure Viktor papers to flee the country, but being betrayed he is very quickly sent East. He is very fortunate to meet a young Polish girl on the train and makes the decision to escape with her and their story together provides the most troubling aspect for the TV series. Joining together with a traveling band of Polish partisans he participates in their raids and becomes an integral part of their group. But the group is shown to be highly anti-semitic, almost Nazi like in their hatred, and whilst I can understand this from a dramatic standpoint (Viktor being forced to integrate into a group that hates his religion) it doesn’t really work within the historical confines of the story being told. Nevertheless if we can forgive this in terms of narrative then Viktor’s story rivals those of the soldier brothers, as he sees as much action and commits as many atrocities in the name of war. He has a very fortunate encounter towards the very end of the war and this enables him to escape back to Germany to try and reclaim his birth. Played by Ludwig Trepte he gives Viktor enough empathy to follow him through to his eventual fate.
The show is steeped in authenticity from the uniforms to the actions to the events that took place.
These five individuals at this party are full of hope and are convinced that the war will be over by the very next Christmas; they make plans and vows and wish to remain the very best of friends. However, the war has very different ideas for them, and as shown above none come away unscathed.
The show is steeped in authenticity from the uniforms to the actions to the events that took place. And what makes it very interesting is looking at the war through our characters perspectives; yes it is played a little sympathetically towards our characters; they are seen as elements in a maelstrom out of their control, while the ancillary characters provide the necessary German ‘evil’ that sparked and drove the war forward. This does make it quite conflicting as we are looking through the eyes of ‘the enemy’, the ‘provocateurs’ or the ‘instigators’. Thus we are being asked to side with those who slaughtered millions. The makers get around this utilising the method outlined above and skilfully paint our protagonists very grey indeed. And this moral ambiguity fuels our desire to keep watching as the characters try to survive the horror they find themselves in. It does make for very compelling viewing.
I do take issue with the PR quote of “a German ‘Band of Brothers’” – this is most definitely NOT such a show, the only thing they have in common is the War. The story of five firm friends that suffer immeasurably during the war is told with a stark reality and an eye firmly on the drama and comes highly recommended – both in terms of a TV show and as a reminder of the horror of the Second World War; billed as entertainment it might be, but as a reminder that we should never forget, it becomes a must watch.
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